Coral reefs are an object of fascination for many who love going to the beach and seeing ocean life, but they are facing many problems caused by humans. Coral reefs are not only home to a diverse community of organisms, but they are also a popular place to visit for tourists and snorkelers alike, and this can have detrimental effects on the corals.
Contrary to what you might think, according to the NOAA, “Corals are in fact animals”, however, a coral branch is not one large organism. It is actually “made up of thousands of tiny animals called polyps”. Coral polyps can range greatly in size, and despite the hard surface of coral, polyps are actually soft invertebrates. They create a limestone skeleton around themselves to protect from many factors in the ecosystem. Despite this protection though, even small changes in the environment can greatly affect the corals.
Coral reefs are home to about 25% of the world’s marine life. This is an incredible feat, especially because they cover less than .25% of the entire marine environment. Because of this, any destruction of coral reefs would create a huge problem, as it would severely disrupt global processes. The biome hangs in a delicate balance, as it can only thrive under certain conditions. For example, a coral reef ecosystem can only survive in waters from 73° to 84°, and any change in temperature would have drastic effects on the reef. This is just one of many reasons why global warming is a notable issue. Climbing temperatures could easily kill coral reefs, rendering the life that depends on them doomed.
Some other problems that affect coral reefs are sedimentation, fishing, tourists, and pollution. Sedimentation occurs when soil runs off from land or settlements and it falls into the reefs. In addition to being buried by the dirt from land, this also brings harmful chemicals into the environment. Furthermore, many fishing methods are also harmful to corals. According to wwf.panda.org, types of fishing that affect the reefs include cyanide fishing, blast or dynamite fishing, and muro-ami (banging on the reef with sticks). Another method, bottom-trawling, is one of the greatest threats to cold-water coral reefs. Overfishing affects the underwater communities by disrupting the food chain. Similarly, coral reefs are a popular tourist destination, but this can harm the reefs. Visitors don’t realize that each piece of the reef is important in contributing to the health of the ecosystem, so they take animals, plants, and even pieces of coral home from their vacations. Lastly, pollution can easily throw off the fragile biome, as according to wwf.panda.org, pollution increases the level of nitrogen in seawater, causing an overgrowth of algae, which ‘smothers’ reefs by cutting off their sunlight.
All of the problems mentioned above can lead to coral bleaching in which a coral reef environment becomes unsuitable for algae to live in. The algae migrates to a new environment, and this causes a lack of oxygen in the water of the reef. The animals living in the reef will then either die from a lack of oxygen, or they will flee to a new environment and the reef essentially dies.
Coral reefs are a unique, charming ecosystem with countless interesting plants and animals, but they need protection. By living responsibly and being mindful of the environment, we can save the reefs, and in turn, make the world a better environment for us to live in.