Once a treasure trove for marine diversity, vibrant colors, and sources of food – the Great Barrier Reef is now under attack. Coral bleaching, once a relatively rare occurrence, has been on the increase. Making global headlines – 2020 saw Australia suffer its third mass bleaching event in five years. These threats and more are going to be discussed, along with the importance of coral reefs and what we can do to save them. 

While there has been a tremendous amount of damage inflicted on the world’s coral reefs, there is hope for recovery. Scientists are working to help reefs recover from the damage suffered, but there is an urgent need for global action to prevent further damage and the loss of these unique ecosystems. While the beauty of coral reefs is a massive draw for tourists, they also benefit human society and provide habitats for many other species. Coral reefs are essential to the ocean’s health and the planet’s survival – we cannot afford to lose them.

red spiky corals

Despite their plant-like appearance, corals are animals. Their diet consists mainly of microscopic zooplankton, so incidents such as the Great Barrier Reef bleaching result in them not having access to enough food. These very coral reefs are made of hard corals with skeletons created from the calcium in the water around them. Individual corals, known as polyps, grow on the skeletons of previous generations of coral and house zooxanthellae algae (from which they obtain food and oxygen through photosynthesis). In exchange, the corals provide the algae with a home and carbon dioxide. Corals grow very slowly, and reefs take many years to develop (not to mention that they are incredibly fragile and have little tolerance for changing conditions).

Although they only make up a small percentage of the ocean, coral reefs are complex ecosystems essential to biodiversity. Often referred to as “the rainforests of the sea,” they provide homes for around one-third of all marine fish species, acting as nurseries for juvenile fish and shelters for many other species. Therefore, with coral reefs dying it could lead to the loss of countless species. Furthermore, coral reefs protect our coastlines from storms, flooding, and erosion. They provide materials that have medical value such as plant and animal extracts which have been used to develop treatments for various medical conditions. Coral even helps to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Not to mention they are also an important tourist attraction in many places and support commercial fishing in others – meaning food, jobs, and coastal defense are provided to many millions of people worldwide by coral reefs.

bright pink corals

The leading cause of coral reefs dying has been the detrimental effect of human activity. Things such as climate change, pollution, critical environmental changes, overfishing and other destructive fishing methods have not only reduced the number of species essential to reef health but alone have caused many corals to die. Techniques such as blast and cyanide fishing as well as dredging are accountable for the destruction of coral reefs around the world. Not to mention that coral bleaching, ocean acidification, and diseases are also killing reefs. To only add to the problem, reef fish (which are essential to the health of reefs as they stop algae from taking over) and corals are now traded internationally more frequently, as the fish go into aquariums and corals are used decoratively.

 

Other reef threats are ones such as the El Niño weather pattern (which raises sea temperatures) and the Crown of Thorns Starfish (which consume coral and cause extensive damage to reefs). Coral reefs grow extremely slowly, making their recovery difficult whether the damage is caused by human factors or natural events such as these, hurricanes, and others to name a few.

 Our oceans absorb more than 90% of the extra heat generated by human activity, and global warming has caused sea temperatures to rise. This causes coral polyps to lose the zooxanthellae algae they depend on for survival. The loss of these algae causes coral bleaching, one of the biggest causes for the Great Barrier Reef dying. Burning fossil fuels also results in ocean acidification through the absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This affects the coral’s ability to generate their calcium carbonate skeletons. Pollution is another major threat to coral reefs. Coral thrives in clear water as they require plenty of sunlight for photosynthesis. They also need relatively nutrient-free water as nutrients increase the number of algae which causes coral polyps to die. Waste and sewage runoff from coastal populations, agricultural pesticides, fertilizers, oil, gasoline, and sediment from eroded landscapes all harm the environment in which coral lives as the water becomes less clear. Furthermore, our ocean’s plastic problem causes both disease and death as plastics suffocates or punctures corals and prevent them from getting the sunlight and nutrients they need to survive.

ring like corals

Corals get their colors from the zooxanthellae algae which live inside them in a mutually beneficial arrangement. Coral bleaching occurs when these algae leave the coral due to stress from pollution, variations in sea temperatures and sedimentation from rivers, which stops sunlight from reaching the coral polyps and zooxanthellae. When these algae leave, the coral starts to gain a white appearance as it is starved of food. Bleached corals are not dead, but they are subjected to stress and therefore are more susceptible to disease. If they do not recover, then bleaching eventually leads to dead coral, which has a brown appearance. If sufficient coral dies, then we are left with a dead reef.

 Mass bleaching events have become more frequent, and while coral may recover from one event, repeated bleaching events can kill off entire reefs. This year the Great Barrier Reef was hit by its third mass bleaching event in five years. With events so close together, there is insufficient time for the coral reefs to recover. 1983 saw the first widespread bleaching event as El Niño pushed warm waters into shallow, temperate zones where reefs thrive. In fact, studies have shown that bleaching events have become five times more frequent, with the average reef being affected once every 25-30 years in the 1980s and once every six years by 2016. Now, bleaching events are happening almost every year and with far more severity. This is likely due to climate change raising sea temperatures, making coral more susceptible to natural events such as El Niño. Shockingly, more than 75% of our tropical reefs experienced bleaching between 2014 and 2017, and by 2050 90% of the world’s reefs will likely be suffering from heat stress that will cause bleaching on an annual basis.

beautiful blue corals

Around 10 percent of the world’s coral reefs have already been destroyed. Primarily in the Caribbean and Southeast Asia, but also in Australia. The Great Barrier Reef bleaching events in 2016 depleted a large amount of Australia’s corals – meaning around 90% of the Great Barrier reef is now dead. This was then followed by more bleaching events and compounded by cyclone damage. 

 In the Caribbean tourism has significantly affected coral reefs’ health as the cruise ships cause pollution damage. In Southeast Asia overfishing and plastic pollution has led to extensive damage, with 95% of the region’s reefs now being at risk. Invasive species also cause problems for reefs – invasive algae attracted by the high iron content water in Hawaii is destroying corals on the Kingman Reef. The shipwrecks increased the water’s iron content, leading to a condition called “black reef” (when algae coats everything and depletes the coral’s vibrant colors). Seychelles lost around 90% of its coral following a mass bleaching event in 1998, and then following a 2016 event – its recovery progress was destroyed.

beautiful coral reef with fish

You have probably heard about the Great Barrier Reef dying and the extensive damaged that has been caused. It is the most colossal living structure in the world, yet roughly half of the corals are already dead and 89% of new coral growth is in decline. So, why is this happening and is the Great Barrier Reef dying as a result?

 Multiple bleaching events in recent years have caused a considerable amount of damage, and the reef is still struggling to recover. Consecutive mass bleaching events in 2016 and 2017 affected around one-third of the reef, and even more bleaching has occurred this year. In addition to repeated bleaching events caused by rising sea temperatures, Australia has also been hit by tropical storms and cyclones which destroyed parts of the reef, problems with the crowds of thorn starfish, and threats from sediment, nitrogen, and pesticide runoff. Currently, there are concerns that it may not even be possible to keep the Great Barrier Reef alive. But, hopefully with climate change, pollution, and overfishing action – along with research by scientists – we can write about “how the Great Barrier Reef was saved” rather than “when the Great Barrier Reef died”. 

Restoration work is already underway through coral farming, growing, and rehabilitation in nurseries before reintroduction to the reefs. Despite widespread damage, it’s worth considering that the Great Barrier Reef covers some 1,400 miles, and there are still some healthy areas. Australia is taking action to protect the reef, but change must happen on a global level.

vibrant colors of fish and corals underwater

Losing our coral reefs will have a devastating impact on both the global environment and human society. Coral reefs are essential to the health of the ocean as a whole. If they are not protected, we risk losing many species as their habitat is destroyed. Reefs provide food, shelter, and breeding grounds to thousands of marine species, these “rainforests of the sea” support a huge amount of biodiversity, which is crucial to the health of the ocean and life itself.

 Coral reefs provide an estimated $30 billion to the global economy through food, fisheries, and tourism. Along with the benefit of being natural buffers they protect coastal areas (and those living in them from storms), rouge waves and erosion. As already mentioned, extracts from reef organisms have medical and pharmaceutical value. They have been used to treat various cancers, cardiovascular diseases, HIV and have even provided material for bone grafts. These resources and benefits will be lost if we allow our coral reefs to die.

rich biodiversity of fish on coral reefs

Protected marine areas can make reefs healthier, more resilient and give them time to regenerate (although this is a prolonged process). Coral Farming is one way humans are helping coral reefs – by accelerating coral growth and reproduction in controlled conditions before transplanting corals into the ocean. Scientists are also researching whether more heat-tolerant coral can be developed through genetic engineering.

 On an individual level, you can take action to reduce your carbon footprint to help reduce greenhouse gasses. The fewer fossil fuels we use, the less harm is done to the environment, which has a beneficial impact on the oceans and coral reefs. Additionally, reducing the amount of plastic you use helps to protect the marine environment and being responsible when disposing of trash are great steps. Always be mindful of what you pour down the drain and what products you use. 

Coral reef conservation projects, marine conservation groups, and beach or ocean clean-ups are a great way to get directly involved with protecting coral reefs around the world. Coral reefs are an essential income source to countries that depend on tourism, but this tourism should be managed well to avoid polluting and destroying the reefs themselves. If you are a scuba diver, freediver or snorkeler, treat coral reefs with respect and encourage others to do the same. Don’t touch or stand on coral reefs and avoid buying products or souvenirs made from coral.

Coral reefs worldwide are under threat and at risk of being the first of earth’s major ecosystems to collapse. Slow growth means that they take centuries to develop, yet people are able to destroy them in a short period with little effort. Loosing these coral reefs is a major concern as we stand to lose not only a precious natural resource with great medical value but also a resource which provides jobs, food, and income. Not to mention the loss in biodiversity of marine life!

But not all hope is lost! People are now taking action globally to preserve coral reefs, and we all have a part to play. While scientists are working on ways to help reefs recover, there is a need for action to deal with climate change and other contributing factors. Many groups are working to raise awareness and make changes to reduce global warming, plastic pollution and more. We, as individuals, can also take action by reducing our carbon footprint, being aware of what we consume and how it is disposed of, and educating others to help protect coral reefs.

This video gives further information on the importance of coral reefs, the problems they face, and how we can help keep all reefs (including the Great Barrier Reef) alive.

1. Why Are Coral Reefs Dying?

Coral reefs around the world are dying primarily due to the impact of humans on the environment. Rising sea temperatures are a result of climate change driven by the burning of fossil fuels. This is the main reason for coral bleaching, which is causing reefs to die. Additionally, pollution, ocean acidification, overfishing, destructive fishing methods, and dredging are all threats to coral reefs. This damage has made reefs less resilient against disease and the natural threats they face, such as the El Niño weather pattern and the Crown of Thorns Starfish.

2. What Is Coral Bleaching?

Caused mainly by rising sea temperatures, coral bleaching occurs when corals expel their zooxanthellae algae. These algae live within the corals and are the reason for the well-known vibrant colors of corals. Coral polyps lose the zooxanthellae due to stress caused by variations in water temperatures and pollution. As the corals depend on the algae for food, they are starved and more vulnerable to disease when bleaching occurs. They also lose their color and appear white, hence the term bleaching. If the coral does not recover from bleaching, it dies and turns brown.

Coral reefs require time to recover from bleaching events, but there has been an increase in these events’ frequency and severity over the years. For example, this year saw the third mass bleaching event of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in five years. The consecutive nature of these occurrences does not give the coral sufficient time to recover.

3. What Is The State Of The Great Barrier Reef?

The Great Barrier Reef has lost more than half its corals since 1995, with unusually large damage caused by mass bleaching events in 2016, 2017, and this year. While there has been a considerable amount of damage done to the reef, it is not yet a completely dead reef. It is under threat and requires assistance if it is to survive, but much of it thrives despite widespread bleaching. Coral can regenerate, but reefs grow very slowly, so work is being done to assist the rebuilding. This video shows some footage of the Great Barrier Reef bleaching before and after work by scientists to restore parts of the reef following bleaching events and cyclones.

4. Why Are Coral Reefs Important?

Coral reefs provide food, shelter, and breeding grounds for many other ocean species and are an essential ecosystem. Often referred to as “the rainforests of the sea,” they support a massive amount of biodiversity and are vital to the health of the ocean and the planet itself. By helping to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and producing oxygen through photosynthesis, there importance cannot be overstated.

They also benefit humans as they are natural coastal defense barriers against storms, tsunamis, and erosion. Additionally, they provide food, fishing, and tourism jobs and are an essential part of the economy. They also provide us with medical and pharmaceutical resources as extracts from coral reefs and the species that inhabit them have been used to develop treatments for various diseases.

5. How Can We Protect Our Coral Reefs?

As individuals, we can reduce our carbon footprint and contribute to the slowing of climate change by reducing our use of fossil fuels. We also need to be aware of what we consume and how we dispose of it to reduce mainly plastic pollution of the ocean. Joining or supporting marine conservation groups, lobbying for change on national and global levels, participating in beach and ocean clean-ups, and spreading the word about the threat faced by, and the importance of coral reefs, will all help to protect them.

Scientists are working to restore the damage done to reefs, but without global action on climate change, sea temperatures will continue to rise and cause further damage to reefs that are already struggling to survive. We all need to understand the benefits coral reefs bring to the world, their importance, and the need to save them from extinction.

We always speak about ‘They’. They need to do something about the plastic problem. They need to stop overfishing. What They are doing to our oceans is simply unacceptable. But who are They?

The government? The government is an administrative body elected by the people. The government exists only to serve out the needs of those people. They is in fact our society, a collection of individuals. You are one of those individuals, and so am I. There is no They, there is only We, and We are all part of the problem. However, We can choose to be part of the solution instead. Sure, sometimes it feels like one individual has such a small chance of creating meaningful change – so why bother. But remember, if everyone had that mindset, there is 100% chance that nothing will change.

We only have one Earth. We can make a difference.

You have a Part to Play – join us in our fight against the Ecological Disaster of our Age.

Heather Barbour

Heather is a product expert, a degreed communications and business professional, and an adventurous, entrepreneurial travel writing enthusiast originally from Raleigh, North Carolina. Heather is a PADI-certified Master Scuba Diver Trainer (MSDT) and holds a Silver Advanced Open Water Instructor certification from SSI, having logged more than 300 training classes over the last four years. Heather is a certified Travel Specialist and also holds a Day Captain's license qualifying her to skipper a boat up to 72 feet. She has extensive experience in specialty dive training, navigation, and booking travel accommodations. Her interests include writing, social media marketing, and serving her Virtual Assistant and Travel Clients from around the globe.

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