Coral Reef Destruction and Conservation

Ten percent of the world's reefs have been completely destroyed. In the Philippines, where coral reef destruction is the worst, over 70% have been destroyed and only 5% can be said to be in good condition. What has happened to destroy so many reefs? Human population has become very large, and earth is warming.

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. As you read earlier, 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.

Warming of the ocean causes corals to sicken and die. Even a rise of one degree in the average water temperature can hurt the coral. Due to global warming, 1998 was the hottest year in the last six centuries and 1998 was the worst year for coral.The most obvious sign that coral is sick is coral bleaching. That is when either the algae inside die, or the algae leave the coral. The algae are what give coral its color, so without the algae the coral has no color and the white of the limestone shell shines through the transparent coral bodies. People have been noticing coral bleaching since the turn of the century, but only since the 1980s has it gotten really bad.

This mountainous star coral, Montastraeaa faveolata, from Panama has started to bleach. Photo by E.C. Peters.

The warmer water and more nutrients also encourages the growth of harmful algae on top of the coral, which kills it, because it blocks out the sun. Without the sun, the zooxanthellae cannot perform photosynthesis and so they die. Without the zooxanthellae, the coral polyps die too. This algae is usually eaten by fish, but because of over fishing, there aren't enough fish left to eat all the algae. And the pollution we dump in the ocean is just what the algae needs to grow and be healthy, which means covering and eventually killing the coral reefs.

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 fancy restaurants in Asia and to fancy pet stores in the United States. This would be OK if the divers caught the fish carefully with nets and didn't hurt the reefs or take too many fish. But the divers want lots of fish and most of them are not very well trained at fish catching. Often they blow up a coral reef with explosives (picture below) and then catch all the stunned fish swimming around. This completely destroys the reefs, killing the coral polyps that make it as well as many of the plants and animals that call it home. And the creatures that do survive are left homeless.

Another way that divers catch coral reef fish is with cyanide. Cyanide is a poison. The divers pour this poison on the reef, which stuns the fish and kills the coral. Then they rip open the reef with crowbars and catch the fish while they are too sick from the poison to swim away. This poison kills 90% of the fish that live in the reef and the reef is completely destroyed both by the poison and then by being ripped apart.

Dynamite not only kills the fish that live in the reef, but the reef as well. (Photo courtesy Thomas Heeger: Philippines)
The map above shows the areas in the world where coral reefs are in danger.

All this may seem a bit depressing, but there are many groups in the world dedicated to saving the coral reefs. These groups work to educate people about the destruction of coral reefs. They lobby the United States Congress as well as the governments of other nations, trying to convince them not to buy fish that have been caught by destroying coral reefs. They encourage governments to crack down on pollution, both into the ocean and into the air, which causes global warming. They encourage visitors to coral reefs to be careful not to harm them. They even build artificial reefs to replace the reefs that have been destroyed. If you want to learn more about these groups, visit some of their websites, like the Coral Reef Alliance, Reef Relief, and the Planetary Coral Reef Foundation.

Some people help coral reefs by convincing governments to treat them with care. Other people help coral reefs by studying them. One way that people learn more about coral reefs is by slicing open dead ones and looking inside. The inside of a coral reef looks a lot like the inside of a tree (picture below) and the lines mean the same thing. A person who studies tree rings is called a dendrochronologist. " Dendro " means tree, " chron " means time and " ologist " means person who studies, so dendrochronologist means person who studies trees through time. Dendrochronologists count the number of rings in a slice of a tree to see how old the tree was when it died. There is one ring for each year the tree lived. The dendrochronologist also looks at the size of the rings. A thick ring means that that year there was lots of food and it was a good year for the tree. A thin ring can mean that there was a drought that year or maybe the tree was sick. In the same way, oceanographers can look at the rings in a slice of coral and see how old the coral is and which years were good years and which were not. The more we know about coral the better we will be able to protect them for years to come.

This is an x-ray of a Montastrea faveolata, collected in 1996 from the West Flower Garden banks in the Gulf of Mexico. Count the rings! How old is this coral?

Coral Bands (Photo courtesy Jennifer M. Smith)

Questions that come to mind are:

1. The island of Hawaii has mostly fringing reefs. Why?

2. Why do reefs prefer salt water to fresh water?

3. What land plants and animals can you think of that have a symbiotic relationship?

4. How would a rise in carbon dioxide levels in the world's oceans affect you?

5. Why does the algae leave the coral?

Critical Thinking Questions:

6. Reread the earlier quote by President Clinton. What are the reasons he gives for protecting the coral reefs? What other reasons can you think of? Are there reasons beyond human gain for protecting our environment and repairing the damage we have done?