Coral reefs are an incredibly valuable ecosystem. Not only are they very important for nature, but they represent a very high value for humankind, supporting millions of people whose lives depend on these natural resources for a source of food and income. Yet coral reefs are under heavy pressure. Already, 27% is permanently lost and with current trends, a further 30% is at risk of being lost in the coming thirty years. With such devastating levels of destruction, the social and economic implications for the millions of people who depend on coral reefs are of great concern. Over 39% of the world population now live within 100 kilometers of the coast and many people in these areas depend on reefs. Reefs protect coastlines and reef fish provide a source of nutrition and income. Poverty increases and food security decreases as fish stocks are depleted. This drives fishers further toward the use of destructive methods to catch what little there is left. (1)
There are two different ways in which humans have contributed to the degradation of the Earth’s coral reefs, indirectly and directly. Indirectly, we have destroyed their environment. Coral reefs can live only in very clear water. The large population centers near coasts has led to silting of reefs, pollution by nutrients that lead to algal growth that smothers the coral, and overfishing that has led to increase in number of predators that eat corals.
The direct way in which humans destroy coral reefs is by physically killing them. All over the world, but especially in the Philippines, divers catch the fish that live in and around coral reefs. They sell these fish to restaurants in Asia and pet stores in the United States. This would be fine if the divers caught a limited number fish carefully with nets and didn’t hurt the reefs, but the divers take as many fish as possible and most of them are not very well trained at fishing. Often, they blow up a coral reef with explosives and then catch all the stunned fish swimming around. This completely destroys the reefs, killing the coral that composes the reef as well as many of the plants and animals that call it home. Any creatures that do survive are left homeless. (2)
As stated before, coral reefs are beneficial to humans. Of the $29.8 billion global net benefit of coral reefs, $9.0 billion is accounted for by the coastal protection coral reefs provide. In the US alone, coastal storms account for 71 percent of recent annual disaster losses. Each event costs roughly $500 million, and while not all of these events occur in areas that would naturally contain reefs, healthy reefs could reduce the cost in those regions that do. In fact, each meter of reef protects an estimated $47,000 of property value. In Florida, the absence of coral reefs would cause parts of the state to be submerged. In Belize, coastal protection afforded by reefs and mangroves provide an estimated $231 to $347 million in avoided damages per year. By comparison, Belize’s gross domestic product in 2007 was $1.3 billion.
Reefs are able to prevent all this destruction by the way they grow. Healthy coral reefs have rough surfaces and complex structures that dissipate much of the force of incoming waves; this buffers shorelines from currents, waves, and storms, helping to prevent loss of life, property damage, and erosion. Up to 90 percent of the energy from wind-generated waves is absorbed by reefs, based on the physical and ecological characteristics of the reef and the abundance of the adjacent seagrass and mangrove ecosystems. In fact, coastlines protected by reefs are more stable, in terms of erosion, than those without. (3)
It is clear that coral reefs are vital not only to marine life but also to humans. We as a race need to protect these natural ecosystems and defense mechanisms if not for the animals then at least for us. If we do not act soon, there may not be any left soon.