We Must Protect the Coral Reefs

By Katelyn Dobsch, Guest Writer

Coral reefs are essential to human and marine life; they offer remarkable historic and scientific knowledge, economic growth, and a better understanding of the aquatic ecosystem, which is considered the most prevalent in our world. Coral reefs around the world are being threatened at an increasing and alarming rate, due to both the shifting natural world and human error. Many other aquatic species consider these corals to be a source of protection, but the corals themselves require protection—especially from humans.

The negative impacts of people on coral reefs around the world is not a small matter; overfishing, coral mining, coastal development close to reefs, and water pollution are all factors in the desecration of coral reefs at the hands of people—leading to complete marine ecosystem disorder. 

Marine conservation laws prohibiting the mining of coral and reef boat anchoring—by consequence of fines, and loss of commercial or personal boating/fishing licenses’ if necessary—would deter others from delivering unnecessary damage to coral reefs around the world. Fishing limits on reef-dwelling species would also reduce stress on the environment, resulting in a more natural and well-balanced ecosystem for the 4,000+ species that rely on coral reefs for protection, food, and nurseries.

The overfishing and coral mining of reefs disrupts the delicate balance of the reef’s ecosystem. The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is a coastal agency provided by the National Ocean Service, (NOS) an organization that provides research, resources and support, chemical spill cleanup, and natural disaster assistance to coastal economies. According to “How does overfishing threaten coral reefs?” by the NOAA, the effects of overfishing lead to the “depletion of key reef species in many locations.” Certain species of fish, such as parrotfish and surgeonfish, are necessary for the well-being of reefs. The lack of these species would lead to excess algae on the reefs, blocking the sun from providing the essential nutrients for the reef to continue growing. 

Coral mining is a developing issue for the marine ecosystem. The Big Blue Ocean Cleanup organization, along with over 200 official members and corporate partners, focuses on coastal cleanup and water pollution prevention around the world. “The Lesser-Known Threat to Our Reefs: Coral Mining” by the Big Blue Ocean Cleanup informs us that coral is mined for many purposes; including bricks, cement, jewelry, and aquarium use. While this may not seem like a large issue, the mining of reefs leads to demineralization of remaining coral, and the loss of algae needed to sustain the reef, which causes what is commonly referred to as “bleaching” to occur. 

Bleaching is the process in which reefs either completely lose needed nutrients, (i.e., sufficient light, algae, proper temperatures) or the required nutrients fluctuate too extremely for the corals to recover. Bleaching is also a result of overfishing.

  “Coral reef ecosystems” by the NOAA provides insight on the 500 million people around the world who rely on coral reefs for food and income, such as fishermen (or fisheries,) marine biologists, local businesses and tourism opportunities (nearby restaurants, hotels, etc.) Reefs also provide hurricane and tsunami prevention to nearby towns, cities, and attractions, protecting lives, businesses, and preventing erosion.

Coral reefs, and species found exclusively on the reefs, have led to medical treatments for lethal and nonlethal ailments. The Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL) is a nonprofit, non-government organization that for the past 25 years has been providing long-term benefits for reefs and reef dependent communities around the world, as well as expanding scientific understanding of reef ecosystems.  “Medicine” by the Coral Reef Alliance states that, “Scientists have developed treatments for cardiovascular diseases, ulcers, leukemia, lymphoma, and skin cancer, all from chemicals in reef plants and animals. Other compounds reduce inflammation, kill viruses, and relax muscles.”

LeapsMag is a journalistic platform that has been dedicated to ethics and scientific innovation since 2017. “How Genetic Engineering Could Save the Coral Reefs” by LeapsMag’s Ron Shinkman, suggests genetically engineering reefs, allowing them to withstand global warming and bleaching. Shinkman states that to genetically engineer coral, scientists will need to decipher which of over 20 types of algae will be modified for one species of coral in order for it to succeed. The issue with this process is there are thousands of species and subspecies of coral and trying to engineer all of them to the fullest effective extent will prove very resource and time consuming. Time the reefs may not have.

According to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute, freezing coral embryos and sperm will reintroduce fading coral species, and perhaps reduce bleaching. While this may sound like an effective plan, freezing and thawing the embryos is a delicate task; if they are thawed too slowly the membrane will rupture and the embryo will fall apart. Furthermore, gathering of the sperm and embryos is only possible under the correct environmental  

Experts estimate that the next 20 to 40 years will determine if the reefs deteriorate past recovery, which would lead to the loss of millions of jobs, the complete extinction of exotic aquatic species, and an increased number of floods and hurricanes for nearby settlements—some of which would no doubt end fatally. The loss of coral reefs will also result in a lack of medical treatment for many illnesses, some of which have no other solution. Without marine laws protecting these delicate environments from human degradation, the coral reefs of the world will fade to extinction.

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