Contributing Writer Emily Bobrek, ’20
The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef system, and is located off the coast of Australia. A lot of people, including me, have visiting this gorgeous sight on the bucket list. But, these coral reefs are dying at shocking rates. In fact, according to the Office For Coastal Management, more than one quarter of the world’s live coral cover has been lost in the last three decades. This is a very somber statistic, because coral reefs are one of the most extravagant places on our planet.
Coral reefs have one of the highest biodiversities of any ecosystem on Earth. As stated by the Coral Reef Alliance, a non-profit organization that works to save the oceans’ coral reefs, these ecosystems are home to over 25% of marine life.
Coral reefs also protect those of us who live on the coast. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), healthy coral reefs absorb 97% of a wave’s energy, which buffers shorelines from currents, waves, and storms, helping to save lives and prevent property damage. Without the coral reefs in the waters by the shore, houses would eventually fall into the ocean and the size of the continents will decrease significantly.
Coral reefs provide us with so much biodiversity and safety from the waves of the ocean. Yet they are tragically being destroyed at high rates, and one of the main demolishers of our planet’s coral reefs are humans. Fixing this issue must be a priority.
According to the National Ocean Service, when corals are stressed by changes in conditions, they become completely white, which is known as coral bleaching. A coral can survive a bleaching event, but if this event is prolonged and the stress continues, the coral will die. Sea levels are rising significantly due to global warming, which is caused by greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide trapping heat in our atmosphere. This causes temperatures to rise, and ice to melt, which in turn rises the sea levels. According to the NOAA, this brings mass bleaching-level heat stress to more than 75% of our planet’s reefs.
Australia is a classic example of how climate change can harm the coral reefs. As previously mentioned, Australia is home to the Great Barrier Reef. As stated in The Atlantic, from 2016-2018, half of all its coral reefs died, killed by oceanic heat waves that bleached and then starved the reefs. Now, with the wildfires spreading across the continent, all the ecosystems on and around Australia are being disrupted. Australia’s government had turned a blind eye to climate change since their fossil fuel industry was prosperous. They did not want to stop what they were doing because their economy was being benefitted. Now, the reef’s only hope of long-term survival is for humans to virtually stop global warming in the next few decades and begin to reverse it.
Leonardo DiCaprio is a very well known environmentalist, and is known to spread the word about what is going on in the world. His Instagram is filled with stories of how the environment is being harmed and research that is being done to solve these issues. While addressing the US State Department’s Our Oceans conference in Washington DC, DiCaprio stated “Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has suffered what is thought to be the largest bleaching event ever recorded.” He urges stronger action to protect it and other reefs around the world. He described the reefs that he saw that were bleached as “not a fish in sight, colourless, ghost-like coral.” This is saddening, because coral reefs are supposed to be filled with life and color.
There have also been many cases where there is direct physical damage to the coral reefs. For example, coastal development, dredging, quarrying, destructive fishing practices and gear, boat anchors and groundings, and recreational misuse all are ways that coral reefs can and have been destroyed. In 2016, a port in Miami was being dredged, or cleared, and during this process, the coral reefs on the coast were being harmed. Many of the reefs were buried deep underneath the sediment, and were killed.
Overfishing is also harmful practice for the coral reefs. Overfishing is catching too many fish at once, so the breeding population becomes too depleted to recover. Overfishing can alter the food-web structures and cause cascading effects, such as reducing the number of grazing fish that keep the corals clean. Since coral reefs provide so much biodiversity, they tend to be big fishing spots. Once fishermen find spots with a lot of biodiversity, it is hard for them to leave because it is how they bring in their money. Money should not be valued over the protection of the coral reefs. It is important to make sure that they aren’t being overfished.
Action must be taken to stop the destruction of the coral reefs. Humans must start to make changes to the way we live our lives. There are many simple ways to help lessen the effect humans are having on the coral reefs across our planet.
One simple way to protect the coral reefs is to practice safe and responsible diving and snorkeling. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), this means to avoid touching reefs or anchoring the boat on the reefs. Contact with the reef will damage the delicate coral animals, and anchoring on the reef will immediately kill the reef. It is also important to be aware of the ingredients in the sun protection worn while diving, because some ingredients in sunscreen can be harmful or even kill corals. One solution is to cut down on the use of sunscreen and wear a long-sleeved shirt to prevent sunburn.
Another way to prevent the death of coral reefs is to live sustainably. Our everyday actions are having a large impact on the coral reefs, whether we know it or not. According to the Coral Reef Alliance, there are three basic ways to live more sustainably.
The first way to live sustainably is to conserve energy. This fights the effects of global warming and therefore lessens large-scale threats to coral reefs. There are small ways to achieve this goal, like switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs, planting native trees, buying energy efficient cars, and avoiding pesticides. You can save energy at home easily, by turning off lights and electronic devices when they are not in use, and opting to purchase energy efficient appliances for around the house and workplace as well. Also, instead of driving everywhere, walking, biking, or public transportation systems like buses or trains are great alternatives and help to reduce the carbon emission. Conserving energy will help reduce the amount of carbon in our atmosphere, which will help to save the coral reefs.
The second way to live more sustainably is to follow the “Three R’s” – reduce, reuse, recycle. This decreases the negative impacts of pollution and landfills on our oceans. Simple steps to achieve this lifestyle include using reusable bags when shopping, taking lunch in reusable containers, and starting your own compost bin. Recycling trash at home is another way to easily help the coral reefs, since marine debris can be harmful to the coral reefs. By following the “Three R’s,” which are often taught at a young age, the negative effect that humans are having on the coral reefs will be reduced.
The third way to live sustainably is to use water wisely. When less water is used, then less runoff and wastewater will end up in the ocean. Using native plants in home gardens is a way to help this cause, because native plants tend to use less water and do not need any fertilizer. Reducing stormwater runoff can help prevent water pollution, reduce flooding, and protect our water resources. Homeowners can install water catchments or rain gardens and use rain barrels to catch rainwater that would otherwise end up in the storm drains. Using water responsibly is another simple way to save our planet’s coral reefs.
It is also important to remember to be a smart consumer. According to the EPA, purchasing live coral should always be avoided, because it is harmful to take these species out of their true environment, and it is destructive to the coral surrounding the bits taken to be sold.
Coral reefs are a wonderful part of our planet, and we should all do everything within our power to save these magnificent ecosystems. Conserve energy. Remember the 3 R’s. Use water wisely. If everyone makes these very small changes, then the coral reefs will come back, and we will all get to enjoy their beauty.