If I had to pick one natural ecosystem on the planet taking environmental degradation the hardest… …it would likely be coral reefs. Which is such a shame. These habitats are probably one of the most iconic natural landscapes on the planet, and when we think of ocean life, it’s hard not to imagine colorful coral reefs. Without them, even some of our favorite vacation pastimes and popular stories wouldn’t exist! (I mean, who doesn’t love Finding Nemo?) People need to know that coral reefs are being hit harder by pollution, changing weather patterns, and many more human activities and human-caused changes (and in so many different ways!) more than almost any other ecosystem. The clock is ticking on coral reefs, and we have less time to save them than we do many other of our other precious natural areas. That said, what is putting coral reefs in such danger?
This hurts coral reefs in more than one way. For one, it hurts the fish populations that live within the reefs, which can have a domino effect on the other life dwelling there too, including the coral itself. Secondly: methods of fishing (such as dragnets) are directly destructive to these ocean landscapes, too.
All the pollution that gets into our water, rivers, streams, and ponds ends up in our oceans— and in our coral reefs as well. It doesn’t do them any good, either! Runoff that harms coral includes agricultural chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers), heavy metals, pathogens (from animal agriculture), sewage (human waste runoff), and more.
Coral reefs grow close to coastal areas, and coastal areas are popular for all types of human recreation and activity. Boat activity (such as noise, anchors, etc.) negatively impact coral, but so can the careless actions and tampering of tourists, beach-goers, and scuba divers. Even more significant may be the impact of sunscreens chemicals washing off beachgoers. At popular resort areas, right after lathering up with toxic UV blockers like oxybenzone or octinoxate, swimmers are transferring these substances directly into our coastline, where they sadly have drastic impact on reefs. (Also look to avoid these chemicals in sunscreens: octocrylene, homosalate, and octisalate). Up to 6,000 tons of sunscreen are estimated to end up in coral reefs each year!
MICROPLASTICS and MICROFIBERS
What we’ve talked about in emails past—microplastics and microfibers—are especially detrimental to coral! Along with chemicals, ag runoff, and other pollution, this type of plastic pollution is one of the many causes for “coral bleaching”: a “dying off” effect that turns coral reefs into mass skeletal graveyards.
CHANGING OF THE OCEAN'S TEMPERATURE
The most harmful thing to coral reefs (and a top cause for coral bleaching) is the state of our oceans in general, as average sea temperatures rise more and more every year. Excess carbon breathed into our oceans can turn into carbonic acid, which can cut off important food supply to coral, and greatly hurt the delicate web that forms coral reef environments. What can we do? Who is fighting against this destruction? I’d recommend checking out groups like the Coral Reef Alliance, Save the Reef, or Coral Restoration Foundation, who are doing some amazing things for coral reef restoration. They fundraise, donate to coral-involved charities, and even do direct work restoring coral reefs. You can even volunteer and get involved with some of them! As always, you can do your own part, lessening your support of companies, activities, and other things that negatively impact coral: whether it’s buying clothes with less plastic, eating organic (food that uses less agricultural chemicals), opting for truly ‘reef safe’ sunscreen when swimming in the ocean, or something else entirely. The world is full of solutions, and that is where we must look.