A Future without Coral Reefs: 30 Years to Go

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Some repercussions of environmental degradation are so noticeable that they’re impossible to ignore. The plastic floating past us at the beach, the painfully hot summer temperatures and the increased occurrence of natural disasters in places that aren’t usually vulnerable to such events are just a few examples. Today, I’d say that most of us are, at a certain level, conscious of the connection between such evidence of our planet’s deterioration and human activities.

“Sewage surfer”, taken near Indonesia’s Sumbawa Island by California-based photographer Justin Hofman

However, coral reefs, situated just below the surface of the ocean, remain somewhat invisible victims. Though we can’t always see them, the proximity of reefs to human activities in coastal regions only serves to increase their vulnerability. They might be the lifeline for healthy oceans and a crucial factor in keeping communities safe in the turbulent years ahead, but, at the rate things are going, experts predict they’ll have almost completely disappeared by 2050.

But why are coral reefs disappearing? And why should we even care about preserving them going forward?  

When I started reading more about coral reefs, I did not expect to learn that they are in fact the protector of our oceans. Besides being beautiful and beneficial for economic tourism, coral reefs also protect coastal areas by reducing the power of waves hitting the coastline, provide shelter for at least 25% of all marine life, grow natural medicines like fungi and bacteria, and even feed the fish. Scientists agree that natural disasters will get stronger and more frequent as climate change worsens, so it’s scary to think about what might happen if we lose this natural layer of protection that reefs afford us.

Once vibrant coral reefs are dying all around us. Taken by photographer Brett Monroe Garner/Getty Images

In the local and global context, there are many threats to coral reefs. Many of these threats are linked to rising pollution, warming atmospheric temperatures and increased levels of CO2 in the seawater. What caught me by surprise was the most significant threat to coral reefs, however, is fishing. In fact, a paper by the World Resources Institute (WRI) identified fishing as “the most pervasive of all local threats to coral reefs”. 

Not only are the populations of reef species integral to the survival of the ecosystem decimated, but fishing gear and other marine debris left behind often cause physical damage to the corals themselves. Whether the corals are smothered by ‘ghost nets’ or are no longer protected from algal overgrowth by core reef species that have been fished almost to extinction, the end result is always the interruption of the reef’s ecological balance and the eradication of its biodiversity.

To me, what’s most alarming is that these issues will only be exacerbated as our oceans get warmer. Recent research at the University of California concluded that reefs can be resilient against stressful temperatures only where there are abundant fishes. 

If we want the beauty, biodiversity and benefits we gain from having thriving, robust coral reefs, we need our fish to stay in the ocean. We must also advocate for an increase in the establishment of “no-take” marine protected areas (MPAs). Current MPAs in areas such as the Coral Triangle, where 30% of global coral reefs are located, mostly allow fishing, limiting the degree to which the area is actually safeguarded. 

“Paddle Boarders Sunset” in Tonga, by photographer Grant Thomas/Ocean Art Competition 2018

But I know there’s still so many reasons to be optimistic. There’s a growing movement to ensure our kids will not inherit dead coral reefs. Calls for rapid change are being heard and acted upon. Australian scientists even think that agreements in the wake of COP26 to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees will help to ensure the survival of the Great Barrier Reef. But we must go the extra mile. Coral reefs depend on healthy populations of fish, and coral reefs rely on us to let those populations that they depend upon prosper. Let’s work to shape a future in which our coral reefs are vibrant once again.



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