The importance of coral reefs

Coral reefs are among the most diverse underwater ecosystems in the world. Kept together by calcium carbonate structures, they are made up of colonies of tiny animals and several other creatures called polyps, fish, and plants.  Coral reefs are home to a significant number of all marine life, making them worthy of preservation and protection from external elements.

USS Guardian hitting Tubbataha Reefs
USS Guardian hitting Tubbataha Reefs

On January 17, 2013, the US Navy minesweeper, USS Guardian, hit and destroyed 2,345.67 square meters of the South Atoll of the Tubbataha Reefs, causing outrage and worries among many people, especially among environmentalists.

Importance of coral reefs

But why exactly did it draw so strong a reaction from several sectors all over the world? What is in the coral reefs that we should be concerned about?

More than being an eco-tourism destination and beautiful dive spots, the Tubbataha Reefs and all other coral reefs in the world have a lot more to offer to mankind than what satisfy the eye and make the coffers busy.

coral reefsHome to several species.  Coral reefs are among the oldest and most diverse ecosystems on planet Earth that support and provide an irreplaceable sources of food and shelter to about two million marine species, as well as a fourth of the ocean’s fish.  It serves as the foundation for complex food webs: from the little herbivorous fish to huge predatory ones – from lobsters, octopus to sea turtles and dolphins.  All of these marine creatures find food as well as protection in the reefs.

In fact, each of these animals plays a significant role in the reef ecosystem in different ways, such as filtering water, consuming prolific algae, or keeping a particular specie under control.

Barrier from storms and waves.  These marine structures are also called barrier reefs because of their ability to shield shorelines from storms, floods and surging waters, even as they slow down  waves before it reaches the shore.  Because of this, coral reefs protect people living near the coasts, ports, and other properties and economies along coastal areas.  

Breakwaters may serve as good barriers from tsunami surge, but they are far more expensive to repair and maintain; whereas, healthy coral reefs regenerate by itself. Coral reefs protect other ecosystems such as the seagrass beds, mangroves, and coastline wetlands.

Backbone of local economies.  Since healthy coral reefs are home to many fish, they can provide abundant fish to support subsistence fishermen, as well as make commercial fishing companies thrive.

Also, the corals’ unique beauty, vibrant colors, and formations attract tourists, which consequently promotes other businesses to develop around the area. Restaurants, hotels, dive centers and other businesses can thrive due to tourism, generating jobs among local peoples and income to the communities in the process.

Source of medicine.  According to The Nature Conservancy, many coral reef species have been found to produce chemicals like histamines and antibiotics, which are useful in medicine and science.  Hence, there is a potential for coral reefs to be the source of many new medicines.  In fact, medicines are now being developed for the treatment of ailments like heart diseases, Alzheimer’s, cancer, arthritis, viruses, human bacterial infections, and other health conditions.

According to some surveys, around seventy five percent of the world’s coral reefs are in danger of destruction due to both local and global pressures caused by certain factors like destructive fishing practices, over-fishing, coral mining, careless tourism, inland and marine pollution, sedimentation, and climate change.


How to protect coral reefs

What, then, should we do to protect the coral reefs?  Here are some easy steps:

  • Observe safe and responsible diving and snorkeling by not touching the corals or setting your boat’s anchor on the reef. This is to prevent damage on the fragile coral animals.  Anchoring on the reef can only kill the corals.
  • Refrain from or discourage fishermen from using dynamite in fishing.  Be vigilant about illegal fishing practices in your area.  If you cannot talk them out from doing so, report them to your local authorities and demand that they take action to protect coral reefs, put an end to sewage pollution of our ocean, and broaden marine protected areas.
  • Conserve water.   Even if you live farther from the shore, your runoff and waste water still reaches to the sea, eventually.  Therefore, the less water you consume, the less runoff and waste you send to the ocean.

marine garbage

  • Dispose of your garbage properly.   Any kind of litter pollutes the water and can destroy the reef and its inhabitants.  If you are a fisherman, do not leave unwanted fishing lines or nets in the water or on the beach.  Sea creatures can get entangled in them.  They can also get trapped in plastic bottle rings, rope, wires, and other garbage. They may even swallow the plastic, mistaking it for food.  Eating plastic can poison marine creatures or cause them other health problems.
  • Help in the coral reef cleanup
  • Reduce pollution by walking, riding a bike, or taking a bus for transport.  Fossil fuel emissions from vehicles and industry increase ocean warming, which consequently cause the mass-bleaching of corals and destruction of the reefs.
  • Make it a habit to use organic fertilizers in your garden or farm to prevent contamination of the water systems, which eventually flow into the ocean and pollute coral reefs and marine life.
  • Plant trees to lessen runoff into the ocean
  • Advocate reef-friendly businesses

Most of all, encourage your family, friends, and associates to get involved in helping to protect the coral reefs and the marine ecosystems.

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