Coral reefs represent one of the most beautiful and diverse ecosystems in the world. Not only are corals themselves tiny animals, belonging to the group cnidaria (with a silent "c"), but they also provide the perfect habitat for many other organisms. But did you know that these reefs are continuously struggling to flourish due to environmental stresses?

Benefits of Coral Reefs

The values coral ecosystems provide in terms of biodiversity and habitat for other species can be measured in billions of dollars, but they also provide important benefits for humans. 
  • Reefs protect the shore by acting as a barrier against waves and storms.
  • Fisheries use reefs to supply food and income for millions of people. Reef-based recreation like diving or fishing creates a source income for local economies and leisure for millions. 
  • Reefs also have the invaluable contribution to the medical community with its potential for compounds isolated from organisms living on reefs.

What Problems Exist?

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, there are two types of stresses on reef systems, natural and human-induced, that can range from negligible to catastrophic. Reefs can adapt well to short-term natural catastrophic events, like hurricanes. After an event, usually a greater diversity of organisms can populate the reef, which benefits the long-term ecological integrity of the reef. However, reefs cannot survive exposure to long-term stress. Many land-based activities have important negative implications for reefs:
  • Agricultural activities can introduce herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers and runoff from animal feed lots. 
  • Sewage discharges can introduce nitrogen and phosphate compounds along with pathogens and mixtures of toxics. 
  • Uncontrolled land clearing can result in erosion, with the resultant increase in sediment loads to surface waters. The surface waters in any watershed eventually discharge into coastal or near-coastal waters, and can then impact coral communities associated with these discharge points. Thus, activities even far away from the reefs can still have a serious impact. 
Without coral, countless animals would be left without their necessary habitats. The amount of carbon dioxide in the water would also rise dramatically, negatively affecting ALL living things on Earth.

What Can We Do?

Here are 10 Easy Steps to Help Protect Coral Reefs provided by The Nature Conservancy.
  1. Conserve water: The less water you use, the less runoff and wastewater will pollute our oceans.
  2. Help reduce pollution: Walk, bike or ride the bus. Fossil fuel emissions from cars and industry raise lead to ocean warming which causes mass-bleaching of corals and can lead to widespread destruction of reefs.
  3. Use only ecological or organic fertilizers: Although you may live thousands of miles from a coral reef ecosystem, these products flow into the water system, pollute the ocean, and can harm coral reefs and marine life.
  4. Dispose of your trash properly: Don't leave unwanted fishing lines or nets in the water or on the beach. Any kind of litter pollutes the water and can harm the reef and the fish.
  5. Support reef-friendly businesses: Ask the fishing, boating, hotel, aquarium, dive or snorkeling operators how they protect the reef. Be sure they care for the living reef ecosystem and ask if the organization responsible is part of a coral reef ecosystem management effort.
  6. Plant a tree: Trees reduce runoff into the oceans. You will also contribute to reversing the warming of our planet and the rising temperatures of our oceans. Help us Plant a Billion.
  7. Practice safe and responsible diving and snorkeling: Do not touch the reef or anchor your boat on the reef. Contact with the coral will damage the delicate coral animals, and anchoring on the reef can kill it, so look for sandy bottom or use moorings if available.
  8. Volunteer for a coral reef cleanup: You don't live near a coral reef? Then do what many people do with their vacation: visit a coral reef. Spend an afternoon enjoying the beauty of one of the most diverse ecosystems on the Earth.
  9. Contact your government representatives: Demand they take action to protect coral reefs, stop sewage pollution of our oceans, expand marine protected areas and take steps to reverse global warming.
  10. Spread the word: Remember your own excitement at learning how important the planet's coral reefs are to us and the intricate global ecosystem. Share this excitement and encourage others to get involved. Send a free coral reef e-card today!

Global Issues
Ocean World
NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program
The Nature Conservancy