The environmental degradation of the world’s coral reefs has been at the forefront of conservation news for some time now. High profile examples include the dumping of dredging waste near Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the destructive land-reclamation projects being implemented by China in the Spratly Islands of the South China Sea. As divers, many of us have seen evidence of coral degradation firsthand, including the damage done by dynamite fishing or corals bleached as a result of global warming. From ocean acidification to rising sea temperatures, to destructive fishing methods and toxic agricultural run-off, the list of human-wrought damage to our reefs seems endless. In the effort to save the world’s reefs it’s important to remember exactly why they’re worth saving in the first place. Here we’ll take a look at the impact of healthy coral reefs on their environment, so that we may remind ourselves of what’s at stake.
For many marine species, coral reefs are an oasis in an otherwise empty ocean. They provide food and shelter, a safe nursery for juvenile fish and a fertile hunting ground for predators. Coral reefs account for less than 0.1 percent of the world’s total ocean surface, and yet they provide a home for approximately 25 percent of all marine species. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), coral reefs support more than 4,000 known fish species, although scientists hypothesize that millions more undiscovered organisms may also depend on coral habitats for their survival. Every one of these animals plays a vital role in maintaining the fragile marine ecosystem and coral is the foundation upon which that ecosystem is built.
Major coral systems are known as barrier reefs for a reason. Where coral reefs are found adjacent to the coast, they provide significant protection from storm damage. They work in the same way as manmade devices like groins and dolosse to dissipate wave energy, thereby reducing the effects of coastal erosion. Barrier reefs help to stabilize productive coastal habitats like mangroves and seagrass beds, both of which act as important nursery sites for juvenile fish, making them as critical as they are fragile. The protective capacity of coral reefs is also important from a human perspective, helping to limit damage to coastal properties and businesses. It is estimated that approximately 500 million people live within 60 miles of a coral reef.
Healthy reefs can contribute significantly to local and global economies if managed correctly. In many countries, coral reefs are a major tourism draw, providing a focal point for beach resorts, dive operators, recreational fishing charters and more. The results of a socioeconomic study carried out in Florida in 2001 calculated that the reefs of the Florida Keys alone have an asset value of around $7.6 billion, while the annual global economic value of all coral reefs is estimated to be between $29.8 and $375 billion. Coral reefs also play an important role in supporting commercial fisheries. According to NOAA, the annual commercial value of U.S. fisheries from coral reefs is over $100 million. In many developing countries, coastal communities depend upon coral reefs for food, and as their sole source of income.
In recent years, scientists and pharmaceutical companies have begun to focus on the marine environment as a potential source of breakthrough cures. Compounds derived from marine organisms, including sponges, deep-sea bacteria and even sea cucumbers, are currently being trialed for medical use, and may one day provide a cure for a vast array of conditions, including Alzheimer’s, cancer and HIV. Some of the drugs commonly used in medicine today are inspired by marine elements, including Cytarabine, a drug used to kill cancer cells that was inspired by the defensive mechanisms of a Caribbean sponge, and Ziconotide, a chronic painkiller derived from the venom of the cone snail. Discoveries like these suggest that coral reefs could be as instrumental in preserving human lives as they are in supporting life in the ocean.