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Coral Reefs - The Breakdown

It can be quite challenging to fully comprehend two crucial aspects:

  1. The significance of coral for both human well-being and the health of the planet.

  2. The factors responsible for causing damage to coral.

We’re gonna break it down so that it makes sense.


Biodiversity

Firstly - coral reefs support biodiversity which is necessary to ensure the stability and resilience of marine ecosystems as a whole.


Despite covering less than 1% of the ocean floor, coral reefs provide habitat for 25% of all marine species. Coral reefs have the highest biodiversity of any ecosystem on the planet as a result of complex ecological interactions. The delicate balance of these relationships contributes to the overall resilience and productivity of coral reef ecosystems.

The complexities of biodiversity start at a smaller level but have a ripple effect, providing crucial support to the larger ocean ecosystem.


So, why is biodiversity of such great importance? Well to put it simply, we need these functions to take place in order for the oceans to be healthy - there would simply be no ocean without it. Furthermore, a healthy ocean leads to numerous profound advantages.


Image by Counting Coral - Fiji 2023


The Great Carbon Sink

The ocean is the world’s greatest ally against climate change, and acts as one of the most significant ‘carbon sinks’ on our planet.


The ocean generates 50 percent of the oxygen we need, absorbs 25 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions and captures 90 percent of the excess heat generated by these emissions. It is not just ‘the lungs of the planet’ but also its largest ‘carbon sink’ – a vital buffer against the impacts of climate change. Ocean habitats such as seagrasses and mangroves, along with their associated food webs, can sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at rates up to four times higher than terrestrial forests can. Their ability to capture and store carbon make mangroves highly valuable in the fight against climate change, making the ocean central to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions and stabilizing the Earth’s climate.

Marine organisms, such as phytoplankton, absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen through photosynthesis, helping to mitigate climate change by acting as carbon sinks. Additionally, the presence of diverse marine species supports the intricate food webs and nutrient cycles that contribute to the overall climate regulation.

Image by Counting Coral - Fiji 2023


The Community

Coral reefs provide vital support and benefits to communities in several ways:


Economic Value: Coral reefs are tourist attractions, attracting visitors from around the world. The tourism industry associated with coral reefs generates revenue and employment opportunities for the local communities, who rely heavily on these services as a main source of income.


Fisheries and Food Security: Many coastal communities rely on coral reef ecosystems for their livelihoods, as they provide a source of food through fishing and contribute to local fisheries' productivity. Healthy coral reefs contribute to maintaining the overall health and resilience of fish populations, supporting sustainable fisheries practices and ensuring food security for communities.


Coastal Protection: Through their intricate composition, coral reefs absorb the energy of incoming waves, lessening their impact and mitigating the potential damage inflicted upon coastal infrastructure. This protective function shields homes, hotels, ports, and other vital structures, and communities as a whole.


Medicine

Coral has shown promising potential in the field of medicine, particularly in the development of new drugs and treatments. In particular, soft corals and sponges, scientists have discovered a wealth of bioactive compounds with unique chemical structures. These compounds exhibit various biological activities that make them valuable in pharmaceutical research. Some coral-derived compounds have demonstrated promising anti-cancer properties. Researchers have identified compounds from soft corals that exhibit cytotoxicity, meaning they can selectively kill cancer cells.


Additionally, coral skeletons, and coral-derived compounds are being used for developments in antibacterial and antiviral Activity, bone regeneration and repair, as well as anti-Inflammatory and analgesic effects. The potential of coral in advancing medical research and development is remarkable.

Now, despite their immense importance, coral reefs face numerous threats, primarily due to human activities. Let’s go over the main ones.


Climate Change

Coral reefs are highly sensitive to temperature changes, as they can only thrive within a specific temperature range. Rising ocean temperatures due to climate change causes corals to expel the symbiotic algae living within their tissues, resulting in coral bleaching. Coral bleaching weakens and often kills corals, leading to the loss of vibrant and diverse coral reef ecosystems that support numerous marine species and provide essential benefits to coastal communities.


In addition to the bleaching of corals, as global temperatures increase, glaciers and ice sheets melt, contributing to rising sea levels. This rise in sea levels poses risks to coastal communities, low-lying islands, and vulnerable ecosystems, leading to increased coastal erosion, flooding, and loss of habitat.


The increasing concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere due to human activities is being absorbed by the ocean. This leads to a process called ocean acidification, whereby seawater becomes more acidic. Acidic waters can have detrimental effects on marine life, particularly on organisms such as corals, shellfish, and other calcifying species that rely on calcium carbonate to build their shells and skeletons. Ocean acidification can disrupt marine food chains and ecosystems.



Pollution & Land Development

Pollution from land-based sources, including agricultural runoff, sewage discharge, and coastal development, poses a significant threat to coral reefs. Excess nutrients and sediments can cause coral smothering, algal overgrowth, and reduced water quality, impacting the health and resilience of coral reef ecosystems.

Runoff from urban areas, agriculture, and industrial activities carries pollutants such as sediment, fertilizers, pesticides, chemicals, and sewage into coastal waters. These pollutants can directly harm corals by smothering them, reducing light penetration, and inhibiting their growth and reproduction. Additionally, excess nutrients from fertilizers can lead to nutrient pollution, causing harmful algal blooms that can smother corals and release toxins.


Sediment particles settle on corals, blocking their access to light and reducing photosynthesis. Sedimentation can also clog coral polyps, suffocating them and inhibiting their ability to feed and grow.


Discharge of pollutants such as heavy metals, oil spills, and chemicals from industrial activities and shipping can poison coral reefs and their associated marine life. These toxic substances can cause coral bleaching, tissue damage, reproductive problems, and overall reduced resilience to stressors.


Overfishing and Destructive Practices

Overfishing poses significant threats to coral reefs and their associated ecosystems. Overfishing can disrupt the natural balance of the trophic structure within coral reef ecosystems. Removing certain key species, such as herbivorous fish, can lead to an overgrowth of algae, which can smother corals and hinder their growth. Overfishing can lead to the decline or local extinction of certain fish species on coral reefs. This loss of biodiversity can disrupt the intricate ecological relationships within the reef ecosystem, reducing its resilience and ability to withstand other stressors, such as climate change or disease outbreaks.


Destructive fishing practices such as ghost fishing, cyanide fishing, and blast fishing will result in the destruction of coral reefs, loss of biodiversity, and long-term ecological damage. To protect coral reefs, it is crucial to promote sustainable fishing practices, enforce regulations against destructive fishing methods, and raise awareness about the importance of conserving these delicate ecosystems.


The importance of preserving healthy reef ecosystems is highly evident, as is the extensive array of factors that pose threats to their existence.


Counting Coral is working towards restoring reef ecosystems through the introduction of sculptural gene banks. By supporting what we do, you can make a difference to the future of our oceans.

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