Healthy coral reefs are among the most biologically diverse and economically valuable ecosystems on earth, providing valuable and vital ecosystem services.
Coral ecosystems are a source of food for millions; protect coastlines from storms and erosion; provide habitat, spawning and nursery grounds for economically important fish species; provide jobs and income to local economies from fishing, recreation, and tourism; are a source of new medicines, and are hotspots of marine biodiversity.
Biodiversity: Coral reefs are essential spawning, nursery, breeding, and feeding grounds for numerous organisms.
In terms of biodiversity, the variety of species living on a coral reef is greater than in any other shallow-water marine ecosystems and is one of the most diverse on the planet, yet coral reefs cover less than one tenth of one percent of the ocean floor. Coral reefs support more than 800 hard coral species and more than 4,000 species of fish.
Coastal Protection: Healthy coral reefs have rough surfaces and complex structures that dissipate much of the force of incoming waves; this buffers shorelines from currents, waves, and storms, helping to prevent loss of life, property damage, and erosion. Coastlines protected by reefs are more stable, in terms of erosion, and are also a source of sand in natural beach replenishment
Fisheries: The fish that grow and live on coral reefs are a significant food source for over a billion people worldwide—many of whom live far from the reefs that feed them.
Approximately half of all federally managed fisheries in the United States depend on coral reefs and related habitats for a portion of their life cycles. The NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service estimates the annual commercial value of US fisheries from coral reefs to be over $100 million.
Reef-based recreational fisheries generate over $100 million annually in the US. Globally, one estimate shows fisheries benefits account for $5.7 billion of the total $29.8 billion global net benefit provided by coral reefs. Sustainable coral reef fisheries in Southeast Asia alone are valued at $2.4 billion per year.
These numbers do not take into account the value of deep-sea corals, which are themselves home for many commercially valuable species and thus additional fisheries value.
How We Can Save Coral Reefs and Why We Should
By Jennifer Weeks, Ensia
Coral reefs are among the most beautiful ecosystems on Earth — “a jeweled belt around the middle of the planet,” in oceanographer Sylvia Earle’s words. They also are extremely valuable.
Reefs cover less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the ocean floor but support more than 800 species of coral and 4,000 species of fish. They are spawning grounds, coastal buffers against storms and lucrative tourist draws.
According to some estimates, the services they provide are worth up to $30 billion yearly.
As oceans grow warmer and more acidic, scientists are developing new strategies to rescue the “rainforests of the sea.”
Credit: Jim Maragos/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/flickr
To the detriment of those benefits, however, coral reefs have been deteriorating since the 1970s under a cascade of human impacts.
Overfishing disrupts their complex communities of large predators, smaller prey species and “grazers” such as parrotfish and urchins that clean large algae off corals. Dredging for coastal development clouds water with sediment, blocking sunlight and depleting oxygen.
Massive blooms of algae, fed by nutrients in farm runoff and wastewater, smother corals. Pathogens, possibly spread by global shipping, kill off corals and urchins.
Now increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are causing ocean waters to warm and making them more acidic. Warm water causes bleaching episodes in which coral polyps expel the microscopic algae that live inside their tissues and nourish them.
Algae provide corals’ color, so the reefs turn white. Corals can recover, but the process stresses and may kill them.
Acidification, which occurs as seawater absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere, reduces the amount of carbonate available for corals to build their skeletons, so reefs grow more slowly and become weaker.
But reef specialists aren’t giving up. Some are identifying characteristics that help certain corals tolerate warming and acidification. Others are conditioning corals to thrive in altered oceans, much as athletes train to compete at high altitudes or in harsh weather.
“We’re trying to counter the message that all corals are doomed,” says Ruth Gates, a research professor at the University of Hawaii’s Institute of Marine Biology. “Corals have been evolving on Earth for millions of years, and they’ve survived for good reason.”
Some experts say warming and acidification are receiving too much attention, and that local stresses are more urgent.
“We’re trying to counter the message that all corals are doomed.” — Ruth Gates
“Climate change is only half the story,” says Jeremy Jackson, former director of the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at California’s Scripps Institute of Oceanography. Jackson was lead editor of a report published in July by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network that found wide variations in reef decline rates across the Caribbean since the 1970s.
While corals had declined by more than 50 percent regionwide since 1970, countries that restricted fishing, coastal development and tourism, such as Bermuda, suffered much less coral loss than those that failed to enact similar controls, such as Jamaica.
And healthy reefs weathered hurricanes and bleaching episodes more easily than ones already degraded by overfishing and water pollution.
“Ironically, the United States spends lots of money on monitoring coral reefs, but doesn’t do much to protect them,” says Jackson. “Our strategy seems to be watching them till they die.”
In late August the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration took a first step toward changing that, listing 20 coral species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
The listing means that other federal agencies will have to consult with NOAA before they fund or authorize actions that would affect these corals, such as energy projects, pollution discharge permits, dredging, boat traffic or military activities.
And NOAA will work with states and communities to protect the corals through strategies such as reducing land-based pollution and transplanting corals grown in laboratories to repopulate degraded reefs.
To counter warming and acidification, scientists are working to understand why some corals can recover from these stresses more easily than others. The answer lies in some combination of corals’ genetics and their relationships with the microalgae that live inside their tissues and supply them with food.
Some experts say warming and acidification are receiving too much attention, and that local stresses are more urgent.
Credit: Phils 1stPix/flickr via Ensia
In a study published in Global Change Biology in July, researchers led by Ohio State University biogeochemist Andréa Grottoli put healthy corals from nine Mexican reefs through two bleaching episodes one year apart. This process simulated conditions that could occur in the Caribbean as soon as 2030, according to current projections.
Some of their findings were surprising. Porites astreoides, a mounding yellow coral that is increasing in some parts of the Caribbean, was modestly affected by the first bleaching but did not fully recover after the second. Other types showed more ability to recover after repeated bleachings.
“What mattered was the size of the corals’ energy reserves, especially stored lipids,” explains Grottoli. “When we starve, our bodies metabolize fat, and other living things do the same thing.” High fat reserves helped corals survive until they could acquire new symbiotic algae. The study also showed that corals capable of partnering with multiple species of algae were more apt to recover.
5 Reasons to Protect Coral Reef Ecosystems
Coral reefs, also known as “the rainforests of the sea”, are well known for their beauty and vibrant colors, but apart from that, they are extremely important, both ecologically and economically.
However, coral reefs are deteriorating and dying at an alarming rate due to human and natural pressures that range from overfishing and degradation to ocean acidification and climate change.
Scientists have estimated that 75% of the world’s corals are at risk and at least 10% have already died.
So why are coral reefs so important?
- BIODIVERSITY: Coral reefs are home to a quarter of all marine species on the planet.
- FOOD SECURITY: Worldwide, coral reefs play a critical role in providing food for more than 500 million people living on or near the coast.
- INCOME: Coral reefs provide a livelihood for millions of individuals in the tourism industry, including hotel workers, snorkel guides, dive guides and more.
- PROTECTION: They serve as natural marine barriers that protect coastal communities from high impact waves during tropical storms, hurricanes and tsunamis.
- MEDICINE: Important medicinal components have been found (and are still being found) in several marine species that inhabit coral reefs.
In 2012, a study was conducted comparing the monetary value of reefs with other marine ecosystems.
Corals were ranked first with an estimated value of $ 500,000 per hectare in the United States. In Belize alone, it is estimated that tourism associated with coral reefs accounted for $150 to $196 million a year. A well-managed reef in the Indian and Pacific oceans can provide 3 to 5 tonnes of fish and shellfish per .38 square mile, per year. *
(below—mention exact names of national parks—and acreage..)
WILDCOAST is working in Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park (17,572 acres) and Bahías de Huatulco National Park (3,630 acres) both in Mexico and Guanahacabibes National Park (39,413 acres) in Cuba to conserve these important marine ecosystems.
Our work in these areas includes providing training to park rangers to implement coral reef management and best practices; strategic conservation planning and educating the community about the importance and benefits of coral reefs; conducting public awareness campaigns that include school presentations and stewardship activities, installing mooring buoys, creation of interpretive signage and brochures.
- We invite you to join our campaign and share this important information!
- Softcoral and coral colony, Cabo Pulmo National Park, Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California), Mexico, November
- Beaubrummel (Stegastes flavilatus) juvenile, San Agustin Bay, Huatulco Bays National Park, southern Mexico, November
- Yellowtail Surgeonfish (Prionurus punctatus) grazing on the reef, San Agustin Bay, Huatulco Bays National Park, southern Mexico, November
- Cortez Rainbow Wrasse (Thalassoma lucasanum) juvenile and Panamic Fanged Blenny (Ophioblennius steindachneri), Cacaluta Bay, Huatulco Bays National Park, southern Mexico, August
- Elkhorn Coral (Acropora palmata), French Grunt (Haemulon flavolineatum) and Schoolmaster (Lutjanus apodus), Jardines de la Reina National Park, Ciego de Avila, Cuba, Elkhorn Coral IUCN Critically Endangered, January
Moorish Idol (Zanclus cornutus), Cabo Pulmo National Park, Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California), Mexico, November
Why are coral reefs so important?
Reefs occupy less than 0.2% of the seabed. Yet they run along more than 150 000 km of coastline in more than 100 countries and territories.
By their massive formation between the surface and the first few tens of meters deep, coral reefs are a very effective for absorbing elements coming from the ocean.
They absorb waves energy and contribute to environmental protection through the reduction of coastal erosion. They reduce the damage in case of storms, hurricanes, and in some way, the energy of tsunamis.
In doing so, they protect both ecosystems located between the reefs and coasts, such as seagrass and lagoon for example, and human settlements located by the sea.
Their impact is so effective that the man mimics immersing concrete structures along some of our fragile coasts.
Without this protective role, some countries in atolls, such as the Maldives, Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands are literally built on coral reefs and would not exist and without the protective fringe.
In these labyrinths of living limestone scientists estimate that over one million plant and animal species are involved and they hostreceive more than 25% of all species of marine life. It is one of the most important biodiversity hotspot on earth.
Coral reefs often host juvenile fish that live further offshore. They are the basis for the formation of other ecosystems.
Indeed, the food of coral formations by the hordes of parrotfish led to the formation of very large tracts of sand and by the action of currents, leads to the formation of shoals, islands and especially in areas prone to the formation of mangroves and other coastal forests.
Mangroves are also one of the most sought after by some species of fish to come and lay their breeding juvenile ecosystems.
The surface of coral reefs in the Indo-Pacific may also be the place of habitat of human cultures that have lived there for centuries. These people can literally live on the immersed surface reefs, cultivate these soils, build their dwell from coral blocks, and even build artificial islands where families can settle.
They represent both a World Natural Heritage by the age of reefs but also a human World Heritage because of the existence of these cultures. They are our heritage and to pass on to the generations to come.
Coral reefs provide flood protection worth $1.8 billion every year – it’s time to protect them
The news is grim: According to a report compiled by hundreds of scientists from 50 countries, Earth is losing species faster than at any other time in human history. Thanks to climate change, coastal development and the impacts of activities such as logging, farming and fishing, roughly 1 million plants and animals are facing extinction.
The UN report calls for rapid action at every level, from local to global, to conserve nature and use it sustainably. And here’s some potential good news: Many ecosystems now at risk can provide valuable services if they are protected.
I know from my research on coastal habitats that the biggest obstacle to investing in natural infrastructure, such as wetlands and reefs, often is that experts have not figured out how to value the protection that these habitats provide in economic terms. But a new report that I co-authored, published by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Coastal Hazards Program, solves that problem for one of our planet’s most biodiverse ecosystems: coral reefs.
This report shows that coral reefs in U.S. waters, from Florida and the Caribbean to Hawaii and Guam, provide our country with more than US$1.8 billion dollars in flood protection benefits every year.
They reduce direct flood damages to public and private property worth more than $800 million annually, and help avert other costs to lives and livelihoods worth an additional $1 billion.
Rigorously valuing reef benefits in this way is the first step toward mobilizing resources to protect them.
Healthy coral reefs with live coral provide much greater protection against coastal flooding than degraded reefs with low live coral cover. NOAA
Breaking waves and blocking floods
Why are coral reefs important? | Natural History Museum
Coral reefs provide an important ecosystem for life underwater, protect coastal areas by reducing the power of waves hitting the coast, and provide a crucial source of income for millions of people.
Coral reefs teem with diverse life. Thousands of species can be found living on one reef.
The Great Barrier Reef contains over 400 coral species, 1,500 fish species, 4,000 mollusc species and six of the world's seven sea turtle species.
The Coral Triangle – a coral-rich marine region in Southeast Asia that encompasses the waters between Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea – is the most biologically diverse marine ecosystem on Earth.
Coral reefs have an estimated global value of £6 trillion each year, due in part to their contribution to fishing and tourism industries and the coastal protection they provide.
More than 500 million people worldwide depend on reefs for food, jobs and coastal defence. The ridges in coral reefs act as barriers and can reduce wave energy by up to 97%, providing crucial protection from threats such as tsunamis. They help protect areas such as mangrove forests and seagrass beds that act as nurseries for marine animals, as well as human coastal populations.
Extracts from animals and plants living on reefs have been used to develop treatments for asthma, arthritis, cancer and heart disease.
Explore the risks facing coral reefs.
Coral reef protection
Modifying human activities to reduce impact on coral reefs.
A diversity of corals
Coral reef protection is the process of modifying human activities to avoid damage to healthy coral reefs and to help damaged reefs recover. The key strategies used in reef protection include defining measurable goals and introducing active management and community involvement to reduce stressors that damage reef health. One management technique is to create Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) that directly limit human activities such as fishing.
Recreational scuba diving can have a measurable adverse impact on tropical coral reefs, mostly due to contact damage of brittle and fragile branched stony corals. This can be reduced by improving diver buoyancy and trim skills, and by educating divers on the consequences of clumsy behaviour on the reef ecosystem.
It takes approximately 10 thousand years for coral polyps to form a reef, and between 100,000 and 30 million years for a fully mature reef to form.
Coral reefs are among the most productive and biologically diverse ecosystems on Earth. Differences in exposure to wave patterns create a variety of habitat types. The coral need a mutualistic symbiotic relationship with zooxanthellae algae in order to build a reef.
The single celled algae derive their nutrients by using photosynthesis, and the coral provide shelter to the algae in return for some of the nutrients. Zooxanthellae populations can die with changing environmental conditions, causing the coral to lose color, known as coral bleaching.
 Coral receive their vibrant colors from the different species of zooxanthellae that inhabit them.
Corals provide millions of people with ecosystem services such as fisheries, medicine, tourism and recreation, coastal protection as well as aesthetic and cultural benefits, yet they constitute a mere 0.2% of the world's marine ecosystems.
Also known as the “rainforests of the sea,” coral reefs cover 1% of the ocean yet provide a habitat to over 9 million species, approximately one fourth of all marine life, for food, shelter, and even hunting grounds for predators.
 Species found on coral reefs include fish, invertebrates, birds, and megafauna such as sharks, sea turtles, and marine mammals. Finally, they serve as essential spawning, nursing, and breeding grounds for numerous organisms.
Coral reefs provide complex structures that buffer the ocean's waves, protecting coastlines from strong currents and nasty storms.
Approximately 500 million people live within 100 km of coral reefs and rely on them for this protection.
Not only are they critical in preventing the loss of lives, property damage, and erosion, but they also serve as a barrier for harbors and ports that depend on them economically.
Over a billion people globally depend on the fish that live among coral reefs as a major food source. It is estimated that half of all US commercial and recreational fisheries depend on coral reefs to provide them over $100 million annually. Globally, fisheries account for $5.7 billion of the net income provided by coral reefs.
Species found in coral ecosystems produce chemical compounds that are used to develop new medicines to treat cancer, arthritis, asthma, heart disease, ulcers, bacterial infections, and viruses. As early as the 14th century, the medicinal properties of coral reef dwelling species were utilized.
Antiviral extracts and tonics continue to be studied and toxic compounds such as neurotoxins discovered in coral reefs have proven beneficial as painkillers.
The limestone skeleton of coral has been tested and used for human bone grafts, due to its porous nature and has a lower rate of rejection than artificial bone graft materials.
Tourism & Recreation
Millions of scuba divers and snorkelers visit coral reefs every year to observe their incredible beauty, as well as beachgoers who are protected by the reefs. Local economies rely heavily on coral reefs, receiving about $9.6 billion through diving tours, recreational fishing trips, hotels, and restaurants.
There are four main categories of interest the public should have for the preservation of coral reefs: the preservation of natural beauty and value, the promotion of the local economy, potential source of new biological products, and preservation of the world ecosystems of which they are a part.
Research shows coral reefs worth saving
Although some scientists suggest that coral reefs are headed for certain doom, a new study by University of Florida and Caribbean researchers indicates even damaged reefs can recover.
In a 13-year study in the Cayman Islands, warm ocean temperatures led to bleaching and infectious disease that reduced live coral cover by more than 40 percent between 1999 and 2004.
But seven years later, the amount of live coral on the reefs, the density of young colonies critical to the reefs' future health, and the overall size of corals all had returned to the 1999 state, the study showed.
Much of the reef surrounding Little Cayman Island is protected, so damage from fishing, anchoring and some other human activities is minimized, said UF researcher Chuck Jacoby, who helped with the study.
“Nevertheless, all coral reefs, even those that are well-protected, suffer damage,” Jacoby said. “Little Cayman is an example of what can happen, because it is essentially free from local stresses due to its isolation, small human population and generally healthy ecology.”
Tom Frazer, a professor of aquatic ecology, and Jacoby, a courtesy faculty member in UF's Soil and Water Science Department, said the study shows reasons to protect coral reefs, even though some scientists believe there's little point in putting more resources into reef management.
“There's a debate over how resilient coral reefs are,” said Frazer, director of UF's School of Natural Resources and Environment, part of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “Some say it's a lost cause. We believe there's value in making sure coral reefs don't die.”
Despite occupying less than 0.01 percent of the marine environment, coral reefs harbor up to 25 percent of the different species of marine organisms, yield about 25 percent of the fish caught in developing nations and generate up to 30 percent of the export earnings in countries that promote reef-related tourism, the study said.
Overfishing, runoff containing sediments and nutrients, coral mining, tourism and coastal development have long threatened coral reefs. Now, scientists say, global warming is accelerating the destruction.
- Despite these travails, the new UF study offers hope for coral reefs ─ if humans pay more attention to protecting them.
- “In addition to saving the living organisms that make coral reefs their homes, safeguarding the habitats could ensure millions of dollars for the fishing and tourism industries, not to mention maintaining barriers that protect coastal areas and their human inhabitants from tropical storms,” Frazer said.
- The study, published in the November online publication Public Library of Science, was later highlighted in the “Editor's Choice” section of last month's issue of the journal Science.
From 1999-2012, scientists, including Frazer and Jacoby, studied reefs around Little Cayman Island, an area known for its healthy reefs. Researchers wanted to see how well the reefs stood up over time under a variety of stresses that included, for example, increased sea surface temperatures.
Researchers attributed the reef's ability to recover to its relative isolation, limited human disturbance and relatively healthy fish populations, including young herbivorous fish that help keep competing seaweed at bay.
Other co-authors included Carrie Manfrino and Emma Camp, scientists at the Central Caribbean Marine Institute.
Materials provided by University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.