Coral Reef Conservation: Is it too late to save reefs?

Coral reefs are not only beautiful, colorful, and fun to explore, they are extremely important to our planet.

Unfortunately coral reefs around the globe are struggling to survive. This is because of threats such as pollution and climate change. But how much damage has actually been done? And can things still be turned around to save them?

Let’s explore these big questions, find out more about threats to coral reefs, and how we can contribute to coral reef conservation.

Why are coral reefs so important?

Coral reefs are important to us, to marine life, and the health of the planet. Here are the top five reasons why corals need protecting:

  • Coral reefs provide a habitat for 25% of all marine species, and are some of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet. 
  • Coral reefs benefit countries and many local tour guides by attracting tourists in the form of snorkelers and divers looking to explore the beautiful underwater world. 
  • Coral reef organisms are being used in medical treatments for diseases such as HIV and cancer, with more advancements being discovered.
  • Coral reefs provide protection for the shore from waves, tsunamis, and hurricanes. This saves many people’s homes from being destroyed, and prevents coastal erosion.
  • Reefs help sharks by providing prey, being a habitat for nurseries, giving them protection from predators, and providing them with fish that will clean them.

Problems that coral reefs are facing

Unfortunately coral reefs are facing many threats, and it is a battle they are struggling to win. Here are the main seven threats to coral reefs:

1. Climate change: Global warming has led to the heating of the atmosphere as well as an elevated surface temperature of the oceans. This affects microscopic algae that live in coral polyps and contribute to the health of coral reefs, this leads to bleaching of corals. Bleached corals will die if they are exposed to warmer ocean temperatures for too long.

2. Ocean acidification: The excessive burning of fossil fuels has increased carbon dioxide levels, this has raised acidic levels in the ocean. The result of this is that coral’s ability to build their calcium carbonate exoskeletons has been inhibited. A weaker exoskeleton leaves coral reefs vulnerable to disease and destruction.

3. Pollution: Pollutants that are dumped or that reach the ocean from runoff pose a serious threat to coral reefs and those who live there.

4. Algae and Bacteria: Things like human sewage, animal waste, and fertilizers trigger the growth of some harmful algaes that block sunlight and starve the water of oxygen. This can also encourage the growth of life-threatening microorganisms like bacteria which make corals more susceptible to disease.

5. Marine debris: Plastic bags, fishing nets, and similar debris break down into micro and nano plastics which can smother coral reefs and prevent them from getting food and light.

6. Fishing practices: Unsustainable fishing practices such as deep water trawling physically destroy coral reefs. Overfishing also affects the balance of the reef’s ecosystem by disturbing the food chain. 

7. Irresponsible tourists: Divers, snorkelers, and swimmers that do not take care in the water can damage corals by kicking, hitting, and stepping on them. It is so important to take care when we enter this environment as some corals only grow around half an inch per year.

Has too much damage been done?

So, is it all doom and gloom or is there still hope? Experts believe that despite human impacts on the world’s coral reefs, there is still time to improve the situation and help reefs to recover. But, if nothing is done, coral reefs will no longer exist as functioning ecosystems by the end of the century. Strong coral reef conservation measures are already being put in place in many locations worldwide, as well as effective management of coral reef resources.

Localized efforts that can continue to be made and that need to be encouraged include:

  • Establishing marine protected areas
  • Regulate/ban destructive and unsustainable fishing practices
  • Reduce pollution and runoff
  • More enforcement and management in places with coral reefs
  • Community education for stakeholders and in schools

Coral reef conservation - 6 things you can do to help.

Individuals can make simple changes to help coral reefs. As most threats to coral reefs have been created by humans, we must all work together to fix the problem. 

Here are six things that everyday people can do to help coral reefs today:

1.Learn and share knowledge: Many people do not realize the extent of the coral reef problem. Watching documentaries such as "Chasing Coral" or "Blue Planet 2", or reading articles can teach you the reality of the issues. There are many resources out there to learn from and if you share this knowledge with others, we can come together to help save the reefs faster. As an advocate of reef protection you can pave the way for the next generation of ocean warriors. A good place to start is by joining the SSI Blue Oceans movement which supports coral reef conservation and the sustainable use of aquatic environments. 

2. Get involved: A great way to help coral reefs is to get stuck in yourself. As a diver you can volunteer to take part in clean-up dives; where a group of divers get together to collect trash from a dive site. You can use a mesh bag to fill up as you go, and enjoy the scenery at the same time! If you are not a diver, you can still get involved with beach/coastline clean-ups. Contact some local dive centers to find out if they have any clean-up events coming up, or organize your own!

3. Refuse single-use plastics: Single-use items such as straws, cups, cutlery, and bags get thrown away and most end up in our oceans. If we make an effort to choose reusable items instead, this would benefit the ocean massively.

4. Dive responsibly: As divers we have a responsibility to look after the ocean that we love to explore. This includes, making sure not to drop anything from the boat or during a dive, not touching marine life, not taking anything from the ocean, and taking care to not kick or damage any corals when you dive. If you would like to ensure you do not damage corals due to poor buoyancy control, you can sign up for the SSI Perfect Buoyancy Specialty program, where you will learn and practice how to better control your buoyancy with advanced skills and techniques.

5. Use reef-safe sunscreen: Unfortunately, many sunscreens are developed using harmful ingredients that are toxic for corals. To protect yourself as well as the ocean and those who live in it, make sure to choose a reef-safe sunscreen.

6. Fish responsibly: If you enjoy fishing, take care not to leave fishing line or nets in the ocean on or the beach. These items can get tangled on coral reefs, or trap and kill fish.

It is a relief to know that we can contribute to coral reef conservation and, together, bring back their original beauty!