Most of us know how critical coral reefs are to maintaining the health of our oceans and marine life. But did you know that humans depend on them, too – and that by the year 2030, 90% of coral reefs around the world will be threatened if action isn’t taken to protect them?
One of the most well-known coral reef relationships is the one between the clownfish and the sea anemone (pictured above). Clownfish defend the anemone from predators while the anemone provides the clownfish with a safe home. At one time, anemones were thought to be plants, but in 1753, scientists realized they were animals, just like the clownfish.
Sea anemones are members of the phylum Cnidaria (nahy-dair-ee-uh). Along with algae, Cnidaria (or polyps) are the building blocks of coral reefs worldwide, what Céline Cousteau has called the “cradle of life in the ocean”. Coral reefs support thousands of varieties of plants and animals, anchoring hotspots of diversity similar to those provided by tropical rainforests.
Humans need coral reefs too. Corals support the fish eaten by over a billion people worldwide. In developing countries, a quarter of the fish caught comes from coral reefs. These shallow-water ecosystems also provide tourism dollars, protection from coastal erosion, and medical treatments for human diseases like cancer and HIV.
But human activity is putting coral reefs at great risk through pollution, damaging fishing practices, and climate change. Over 85% of Southeast Asia’s Coral Triangle is directly threatened by human activity and the rest of the world’s reefs are headed in the same direction:
EarthShare organizations are working hard to ensure that we don’t lose these treasures of the ocean. In the Gulf of California, the Natural Resources Defense Council is working with partners and citizen groups to keep tourism development out of one of the richest marine systems on the planet in Cabo Pulmo National Park.
The World Resources Institute (WRI) is helping communities manage their coral reefs in a more sustainable way through resources like Reefs at Risk Revisited in the Coral Triangle. The report was recently translated to Indonesian so that local leaders can implement the prescriptions.
WRI’s report reveals that some reefs are faring better than others. Scientists at the Wildlife Conservation Society and Defenders of Wildlife are pinpointing these differences through “stress tests” and other research. These tests will help conservationists prioritize the regions and species that need the most protecting and those that are likely to be resilient in the face of climate change. Since the ocean is undergoing a much faster rate of warming from climate change than the atmosphere, answering these questions is vital to saving coral reefs.
From tiny jewel-toned diatoms to delicate, lacy sea fans, reefs are treasures of biodiversity on our “blue marble” planet. You can help protect them by addressing the causes of climate change in your home and community, and by eating only sustainably-caught fish.
For more information on coral reefs, visit:
Coral Reefs, World Wildlife Fund
Coral Reefs: Basic Facts, Defenders of Wildlife
Reefs at Risk, World Resources Institute