Coral reefs are the most diverse hubs of action in the oceans, submerged cities built of coral instead of skyscrapers and fish taking the place of automobiles. They are natural beauties splashed with vivid arrays of color, teeming with more species than any other place on the planet. Organisms from tiny shrimp to large manatees rely on the coral reefs for shelter, food, and stability. These reefs take up a small slice of the sea, and an even smaller bite of Earth, yet they house millions of organisms and are utterly invaluable to humans. Tragically, coral reefs suffer at our hands as well as the factors of the natural world and are diminishing without the ability to quickly bounce back. While there are still a plethora of ways to save these underwater metropolises, they require a great deal of human aid instead of hindrance to deviate from the predicted, heartbreaking end of the magnificent coral reefs.

A well-populated coral reef near Fiji. Photo courtesy of: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/feb/23/coral-reef-report-dying-danger

A well-populated coral reef near Fiji. Photo courtesy of: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/feb/23/coral-reef-report-dying-danger

Coral

Corals are closely related to the sea anemone, yet these creatures make a mineral skeleton that hardens unlike the sea anemone. This gives corals their solid shape that differs from the anemone’s jelly-like body. They are members of the phylum Cnidaria alongside jellyfish. Corals are created of polyps (like the anemone) that have an opening on one end: a mouth surrounded by tentacles. These tentacles have nematocysts, or stinging cells, that allow the coral to stun and capture prey in order to nourish itself. Each polyp is usually very small in size, less than half an inch in diameter, however the mushroom coral (Fungiidae) has the largest of polyps at five inches in diameter. Polyps in corals secrete calcium carbonate that create thin plates and eventually a full, firm skeleton. Carefully incased inside each poly are digestive and reproductive tissues. A main source of food for warm, shallow water corals is zooxanthella, a single-celled protozoan that partakes in a symbiotic relationship with corals. This plankton photosynthesizes and thus will pass some of the nutrients it creates from the sun on to the creature that digests zooxanthellae, while the coral gives nutrients to the zooxanthellae. Between coral and zooxanthella there is a symbiotic relationship that promotes growth in corals as well as provides the coloring that most corals possess.

Interestingly, corals can reproduce both asexually and sexually, as well as be male, female, or both at different times in their life stages. This variety of reproductive methods allows corals to reproduce quickly through asexual reproduction, allowing coral to expand and grow without the wait. Sexual reproduction provides genetic variation which creates a stronger, more diverse colony of corals than the previous generation. Scientists can uncover the age of corals since they create annual rings similar to trees and, as some coral can live for hundreds of years, these corals’ skeletons can reveal ocean conditions from centuries ago.

Coral types can be grouped in two main ways, by structure (hard or soft) and by number of tentacles (hexacoral or octocoral). Hard corals are specified as such because their exoskeleton is stiff to protect their soft, inner bodies. Examples of hard coral include star (Montastraea cavernosa), staghorn (Acropora cervicornis), and brain corals (Faviidae). A subcategory of hard coral is stony coral comprised of reef-building types like red (Corallium rubrum), blue (Heliopora coerulea), and organ pipe (Tubipora musica) corals. Soft corals in contrast are more flexible and lack the solid exoskeleton of hard corals. This group includes black corals (Antipatharia) along with sea fans and sea whips (both considered under the order of Alcyonacea). Defining a type of coral under the anthozoan class within phylum Cnidaria groups corals as either hexacoral or octocoral (with the exception of fire corals, Millepora). Hexacorals have smooth tentacles that number generally in multiples of six such as black and stony corals. Most soft corals as well as organ pipe and blue corals fall under the category of octocoral. This type has eight tentacles that have small fringes on either side of each tentacle.

Brain coral. Photo courtesy of: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coral_reef

Brain coral situated within a coral reef. Photo courtesy of: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coral_reef

Coral Reefs

Coral colonies grow at a significantly slow rate, most less than an inch annually. Reefs are comprised of such coral colonies that can grow even slower due to compaction of broken pieces of dead coral. Despite this obstacle, coral reefs do exist and develop when coral growth exceeds death. Reefs only make up less than one percent of Earth’s surface and cover about two percent of the ocean floor while water as a whole takes up seventy-one percent of Earth’s surface. Understanding the size of reefs on this scale, it may seem impossible that much life can flourish in such a small piece of the planet, yet more than a quarter of marine life call coral reefs “home.”

Even though they are relatively small, reefs have a high value not just for their residents but for humans as well. Coral reefs have been estimated to value between 30-100 million U.S. dollars for the resources they provide. The fish that flourish in reefs provide food for locals, the protection of shorelines, the draw for tourists, and the jobs protecting the reefs create a rich array of production from coral. In recent cases medicines are being created from coral and other reef organism to cure and treat diseases like cancer and HIV.

There are more reefs than the largest and most famous one that will be discussed later in this article. Reefs are found in a variety of locations in the ocean in both shallow and deep waters. In shallow, warm waters reef-building corals thrive since the algae in their tissues requires sunlight to live and the coral seems to grow more in temperatures between 70-85˚F. Zooxanthella is also only found under these conditions. Journeying to deeper waters, there are still reefs to be discovered. These deep-sea corals withstand chilling temperatures and extreme depths, far from the sunlight of the surface. Hard and soft corals can be found at depths as great as 20,000 feet. These corals grow at an excruciatingly limited rate, but grow none-the-less.

Most scientists classify reefs into four main categories: barrier, fringe, atoll, or patch. Barrier reefs run parallel to the coast and are divided by very deep, wide lagoons. They get their name by rising up close to the surface in shallow waters, creating a blockage. The reef is separated from the shore by the lagoons that are often extremely deep and provide a certain amount of protection for the reef from land. The most common type of reef is the fringe reef. They are similar to barrier reefs by growing close to the shore, but the lagoons they are near usually are shallower than those of barrier reefs. They grow best near land that has thick vegetation and low rainfall, and in this way they are the most harmed by deforestation and runoffs. Fringe reefs can transform into atolls. Atolls occur when fringe reefs grow on volcanic islands that have been entirely submerged, gaining height to form a circular or ovular shape with an open hole of water in the center. Caribbean and Atlantic atolls do not usually form on top of volcanic matter, however, owing their birth to tectonic plates shifting and pushing the fringe reef up to the surface. These protective donuts are usually found in the middle of the ocean, away from the harmful effects of land, yet more exposed to sea and air erosion. Patch reefs (as the name implies) are scattered, much smaller reefs that grow upwards from the depths of the sea or the continental shelf. They hardly ever reach the surface and are usually formed between barrier and fringe reef formations. Since these are harder to designate, many scientists only passively acknowledge patch reefs as a category of its own, instead preferring to group them with the fringe or barrier reef they are closest in distance to.

The Great Barrier Reef. Photo courtesy of: http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/photos-e6frewxi-1226401596416?page=14

The Great Barrier Reef. Photo courtesy of: http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/photos-e6frewxi-1226401596416?page=14

The Great Barrier Reef

In the Pacific Ocean, situated alongside the coast of Queensland, Australia, lies the largest and most infamous reef on the planet: The Great Barrier Reef. It runs almost parallel to the eastern coast from Bundaberg up past Cape York and measures 1,800 miles in length. Massive in size, the reef is 133,000 square miles, making it larger than the Great Wall of China and is even visible from space. As one of the seven wonders of the natural world, the Great Barrier Reef became a national park in 1975 under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act and UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) declared it a World Heritage Site in 1981. The park designates the entirety of the reef including 600 continental islands.

With great size comes great diversity in this highly populated ecosystem. This reef is home to the largest variety of corals in the world, including over 600 types of hard and soft corals that have been investigated by scientists. After a coral has died, the inside rings are studied and have been documented to date the birth of the oldest corals at 20,000 years old. But corals make up just a small fraction of the life bursting from this reef habitat. This bustling underwater metropolis is home to 3,000 types of mollusks (such as the Giant Clam, some of which are over 100 years old), 1,600 types of reef fish, 130 species of sharks, 20 kinds of reptiles (including the endangered Green Sea Turtle), and over 30 different kinds of mammals like dolphins and whales. The endangered Dugong (Dugong dugon) is among the many creatures to find solace in these tropical waters. Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) traveling up from the frigid waters of the Antarctic use the area for breeding and can be seen breaching during the warmer months. Due to its wide variety of attractions, the Great Barrier Reef is considered a popular location for tourists. People can see the beauty of this natural creation from a distance through helicopter tours, boat excursions, cruises, and whale-watching boat trips. The more adventurous can find an intimate encounter through scuba diving, snorkeling, and swimming with the dolphins. A variety of businesses offer exciting ways to view or interact with the reef, especially in the warmer months and during holiday seasons.

Map designating the Mesoamerican coral reef and marine protected areas. Photo courtesy of: http://www.cayecaulkerchronicles.com/2013/01/30/restoring-belizes-coral-system/

Map designating the Mesoamerican coral reef and marine protected areas. Photo courtesy of: http://www.cayecaulkerchronicles.com/2013/01/30/restoring-belizes-coral-system/

Honorable Mentions

Second only to the Great Barrier Reef in length is the New Caledonia Reef at over 930 miles. Located in the Southwest Pacific Ocean, this reef has the excepted diversity with over 1,000 different species, as well as an element of surprise. The extent of diversity changes rapidly as new species are constantly being discovered hiding within this reef. Many threatened species can be found here, including four species of sea turtle, dugongs, and a type of rare palaemonine shrimp (Brachycarpus crosnieri). The New Caledonia Reef is also notable as a breeding area for tropical birds including the following: sooty tern (Onychoprion fuscatus), red-footed booby (Sula sula), and brown noddy (Anous stolidus).

In area, the Mesoamerican Reef comes second to the Great Barrier Reef and is the largest coral reef in the Western Hemisphere. At 700 miles long, the reef encompasses ocean from the northern Yucatan Peninsula through the Honduran Bay Islands. At least 60 kinds of hard coral form the infrastructure for this reef, housing over 500 species of reef fish. Five different species of turtles roam the waters and one of the world’s largest attendance of whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) can be found. This Caribbean Reef relies heavily on mangrove trees along the coasts, making the degradation of these trees a vital blow to the reef’s habitat.

When it comes to diversity, the champion is Raja Ampat, Indonesia. Located where the Indian and Pacific Oceans meet, this reef is home to more than 1,300 documented species of reef fish that we know of today. Thirteen marine mammal species roam the warm waters and seven giant clam types are docked to the ocean bottom. The Bird’s Head Seascape in itself has 57 species of mantis shrimp (Stomatopoda) and has seven marine protected areas adding up to 35,000 square miles. This area is well-known across the globe as a fantastic diving expedition site.

Florida has the largest continental reef in the United States off its coast that is 358 miles in length. About two-thirds of this area is part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The coral reef here formed at least 5,000 years ago after the last Ice Age when sea levels rose. The most numerous reef-building coral here are the staghorn (Acropora cervicornis), elk horn (Acropora palmate), brain (Faviidae), and star corals (Montastraea cavernosa). Forty-one miles off the Dry Tortugas in the Florida Keys is the Pulley Ridge. This is the deepest discovered location of photosynthetic coral in the world stretching down to 250 feet. In 2001, this area was named a Habitat Area of Particular Concern by the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council and is now protected against an array of harmful fishing habits and tools.

Giant clam near Batangas. Photo courtesy of: http://scubadivingbeachresort.com/giant-clam-front-famous-anilao-batangas-beach-resort/

Giant clam near Batangas. Photo courtesy of: http://scubadivingbeachresort.com/giant-clam-front-famous-anilao-batangas-beach-resort/

The Giant Clam

Found in the warm waters of the South Pacific and Indian Oceans, the giant clam (Tridacna gigas) is the largest of all the mollusks. This “giant” is a bottom-dwelling creature that can reach up to four feet in length and weigh more than 500 pounds. Proteins from billions of algae that live within the clam allow the clams to grow to such titanic sizes. It is found along the seafloor of the Great Barrier Reef where it attaches itself to one location and stays for the entirety of its natural life. This is one organism that does not care about the marine real estate market. Each clam is unique as no other in the ocean has the same coloration. While this feature is fascinating, it does make it more difficult for scientists and observers to tell which clam species it belongs to, having to rely solely on the size and weight, as well as the ridges on the outer part of the shell. Algae that lives within the clam contributes to the variations in colors and the beautiful exterior of the shells, surprisingly because the algae does not come in such pigments itself. Clams that are vivid white in color usually are suffering from bleaching, a condition that also has a detrimental effect on coral and coral reefs as a whole. Under the right conditions, giant clams can survive in the wild an average of 100 years.

As gentle giants, it might come as a surprise that South Pacific legends regard the giant clam as a “man-eating” beast in the depths of the ocean, prepared to snap unsuspecting divers in its grasp and swallow them alive. The clam’s muscles move far too slowly to catch anything by surprise and the organism would most likely try to retreat from harm into its shell rather than devour the potential threat. There has never been a documented incident of a person being eaten by a giant clam as far back as history dictates although there have been numerous disproved claims. The clam is listed as a vulnerable species, due mostly to its abductor muscle being considered a delicacy among several cultures and some calling the muscle an aphrodisiac.

A small taste of the variety found in reef animals. Photo courtesy of: http://ocean.si.edu/slideshow/bizarre-and-beautiful-coral-reef-animals

A small taste of the variety found in reef animals. Photo courtesy of: http://ocean.si.edu/slideshow/bizarre-and-beautiful-coral-reef-animals

Life in Coral Reefs

The extensive variety of organisms in coral reefs is the most diverse in the world, barely out-doing the rain forests. Young coral, before it finds a resting place on the ocean bottom and grows its tough skeleton, floats alongside plankton and is easily devoured by many creatures. This coral eventually makes up the structure of the reef and is its most prominent living organism. Once coral has matured there are plenty of critters that can still make a meal of the crunchy treat. Several species of worms, snails, fish, and starfish dine on the coral, in particular the crown-of-thorns sea star (Acanthaster planci) and the parrotfish (Scaridae). Parrotfish munch down in order to eat the zooxanthellae situated inside the coral polyps. Grinding down coral into tiny grains contributes to the sand on the ocean floor. Seaweed competes with coral for residency and usually wins as it grows quicker than coral and can secrete chemicals that damage coral. Some corals get protectors in the form of crabs or shrimp that live in their branches and are more than willing to snap at predators who get too close. A species of goby eats seaweed too, utilizing the chemicals to make itself less of a prey item, and opens up space for coral to flourish. Some creatures such as tunicates and mollusks (including giant clams) help to clarify the water of reefs by filtering the water and digesting phytoplankton.

All kinds of creatures can be discovered living and thriving in coral reefs. Polychaete worms, vase sponges, tube sponges, crown-of-thorns sea star, sea urchins, sea anemones, nudibranchs, chitons, mussels, clams, scallops, squid, cuttlefish, octopi, shrimps, spiny lobsters, crabs, and amphipods all claim residence in crowded reef neighborhoods. Sea snakes, dugongs, sea turtles, and manatees also are frequently seen gliding through the warm waters. Reef fish include herbivores (rabbitfish, damselfish, parrotfish, and surgeon fish), planktivores (wrasses, snappers, and seabass), benthic carnivores (butterfly, triggerfish, and grunts), and piscivores (marcels, sharks, barracudas, needlefish, trumpet fish, flatfish, groupers, and scorpionfish). Herbivores eat plants and plant-like organisms, planktivores devour plankton, benthic carnivores prey on the meat of other larger organisms, and piscivores are fish-eating animals that can even take part in cannibalism. Dolphins, porpoises, and whales all pass through reefs while migrating or for other reasons like giving birth or mating, but rarely do these species take up permanent residence in reef ecosystems.

Mangrove trees and their large root systems. Photo courtesy of: http://tizon3rdquarter.blogspot.com/2011/09/importance-of-coral-reefs-and-mangroves.html

Mangrove trees and their large root systems. Photo courtesy of: http://tizon3rdquarter.blogspot.com/2011/09/importance-of-coral-reefs-and-mangroves.html

Coral Reef Ecosystem

An ecosystem can be defined as a community of organisms and their relationship with the environment around them. Coral reef ecosystems revolve around the health and size of the coral population, as well as the balance among predators and prey. These creatures live in harmony in a way that perfectly makes the coral reef ecosystem possible and flourish. Frequently overlooked, the plant life that helps comprise the ecosystem are as vital as the fish that swim among the anemones. Mangrove trees and seagrasses in particular provide an abundance of nutrients and protection for other organisms, many of which would perish without these plants. Mangrove trees are salt-tolerant and grow along the coasts near tropical waters. Their roots provide extra structure for the land and homes for smaller organisms. They help weed out pollutants from reaching the coral reefs and trickle nutrients into other organisms that require them. Seagrass is the basis for food webs in many coral reefs by feeding a variety of animals from manatees to sea urchins. Many crustaceans hide in seagrass, using the blades as protective covering from the sight of predators. A main contribution of seagrass to the ecosystem is providing oxygen to the water’s inhabitants which is essential for almost all types of marine organisms. Ecosystems would not be able to maintain themselves in coral reefs without the abundance of diverse life that comprises this underwater communities.

Reef sharks prowling the waters. Photo courtesy of: http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/photo-of-the-day/shark-kingman-reef-pod/

Reef sharks prowling the waters. Photo courtesy of: http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/photo-of-the-day/shark-kingman-reef-pod/

Food Web

Food webs are inclusive systems of food chains that are linked and reliant upon one another. The food web for reefs is difficult to interpret (or even create) as it involves a large diversity of creatures whose eating habits may not be known for certain. Scientists who compose these particular food webs also need to be specific to which reef they are describing as not all reefs have the same organisms or rank in every food web. Understandably, these can become complex maps that are not easily understandable; this will be a simplified overview of the typical reef food web. In every food web there are levels. Every level shows how the organism acquires energy and then if any other organism gets energy by eating it. There can be up to four trophic levels in a simplified food web of coral reefs: producers, primary consumers, secondary consumers, and tertiary consumers.

Photosynthetic creatures are classified as producers in this (as in most) food web. Plants, bacteria, and algae make up the bulk of these organisms. These autotrophic organisms come in the form of phytoplankton, zooxanthellae, seaweed and seagrass, but the most notable (besides the zooxanthella) is the cyanobacteria. They can be called “blue-green algae,” even though they are not related to the prokaryotes, and are unicellular organisms that grow on practically any surface in a coral reef.

Primary consumers are those that digest producers and are typically grouped as herbivores. These heterotrophic creatures are arguably the most numerous in the food web, including reef fish and most invertebrates. Mollusks, parrotfish (Scaridae), surgeonfish (Acanthuridae), rabbitfish (Siganus), damselfish (Pomacentridae), zooplankton, coral polyps, sponges, and some species of crustaceans, worms, and nudibranchs are ranked as primary consumers. The larger animals in this classification such as sea turtles (Chelonioidea) and dugongs (Dugong dugon) have lost numbers dramatically over the past century. Any variation in the normative coral reef food web can have extremely detrimental effects on all levels of the web, allowing producers to overgrow and harm coral as well as diminishing the food supply for secondary and tertiary consumers.

The next degree incorporates most of the diverse types of carnivores in the secondary consumer level. These creatures prey on primary consumers such as zooplankton or smaller reef fish. Examples include the pufferfish (Tetraodontidae), seabass, trumpet fish (Aulostomus maculatus), snappers, sea slugs, and in some cases crustaceans and sea turtles (Chelonioidea). Some animals can be listed in more than one category because in different reef settings they have a higher or lower rank depending on the availability of food and what type of food is supported by that particular ecosystem. That is where food webs can get tricky.

Many examples of coral reef food webs do not include the tertiary consumer level, grouping these creatures with secondary consumers. However, this can be misleading as these large predators would then consume members of their own rank in some reef webs. Highly detailed food webs can have more levels in an attempt to incorporate all known organisms in a specific reef ecosystem. Just as the lion is the “king of the jungle,” sharks (Selachimorpha) rule the reefs as the most infamous piscivores (fish-eaters). Along with barracudas, these consumers prey on a wide assortment of primary and secondary consumers and have almost no natural predators. Humans are credited with being the most dangerous threat to these high-ranking species. As mentioned in regards to secondary consumers, any disturbance to a food web can cause catastrophic, chain-reaction effects for the other levels. Taking away one type of fish or plant would horribly upset the scale and make life difficult for all of the other animals in the web, those depending on a steady supply of the appropriate organisms.

Side by side comparison of health and bleached coral. Photo courtesy of: https://www.google.com/search?noj=1&tbm=isch&sa=1&q=coral+bleaching&oq=coral+ble&gs_l=img.3.0.0l10.24998.25577.0.27395.5.5.0.0.0.0.79.341.5.5.0....0...1.1.64.img..0.5.338.v0RH8Ut5hHU#imgrc=bpci4VmRbCd4wM%3A

Side by side comparison of healthy versus bleached coral. Photo courtesy of: https://www.google.com/search?noj=1&tbm=isch&sa=1&q=coral+bleaching&oq=coral+ble&gs_l=img.3.0.0l10.24998.25577.0.27395.5.5.0.0.0.0.79.341.5.5.0….0…1.1.64.img..0.5.338.v0RH8Ut5hHU#imgrc=bpci4VmRbCd4wM%3A

Threats (Natural)

As with many other natural populations, coral reefs are victimized by a number of threats. Even the diversity of this ecosystem, which generally makes one more resistant to harm, can still be significantly damaged. Unfortunately both natural and anthropomorphic (man-made) problems effect coral reefs, killing off coral populations and thus the creatures that rely on these reefs to live which adds up to about a quarter of marine species in total. Many reefs have been wiped out over the years and even flourishing reefs are only a portion of what they once were. The reefs we are familiar with today are only ghosts of their former glory and they are not growing as quickly as scientists would hope. Natural disasters (mainly hurricanes) have devastated coral reefs in locations across the globe and are more injurious in reefs that have already been damaged by other factors. Invasive species unbalance the normal routine of reefs, competing with and killing off native species. The lionfish (Pterois) native to Indo-Pacific waters has reached a particularly worrisome stance in Atlantic reefs; growing numbers can demolish local fish populations. Predators, namely the crown-of-thorns sea star (Acanthaster planci), can wipe out coral. When numbers are great, these sea stars can cause so much damage that it cannot be replenished for up to 40 years. These sea stars reproduce rapidly and a main predator (the triton trumpet, Charonia tritonis) has suffered from overfishing, allowing the sea star populations to flourish and cause immense destruction to reefs. Bacterial infections affect reefs due to an excess of protective mucus which can also attract blue green algae. This algae is believed to cause black band disease, formed as a black band of filaments across coral colonies, and coral is killed when the band expands to leave behind just limestone.

Ocean acidification and coral bleaching are determined as the greatest “natural” dangers. Increasingly acidic ocean water is detrimental to coral as it keeps coral from building their calcium carbonate skeletons, leaving them vulnerable to other threats. If ocean acidification intensifies, it can damage previous formed skeletons, effectively demolishing the backbone of these precarious ecosystems. Coral bleaching occurs when the coral polyp’s zooxanthellae is damages or killed off, leaving behind coral tissues that are nearly clear and exposing the white mineral skeleton. This issue has many causes such as the following: water that is too cold to support the algae, too little light (hindering photosynthesis), and dilution from fresh water, however the biggest factor is rising ocean temperatures caused by global warming. Bleaching is a slow death, killing coral by starvation or exposing it to other threats that deliver the final blow. In 1998, a study showed that 80% of the Indian Ocean’s coral reefs showed signs of bleaching and 20% of those had perished beyond repair. Coral can recover from bleaching, but only in a population growing in waters that do not promote bleaching in the future.

Coral jewelry and decorations in a display. Photo courtesy of: http://coralreef.noaa.gov/deepseacorals/about/threats/

Coral jewelry and decorations in a display. Photo courtesy of: http://coralreef.noaa.gov/deepseacorals/about/threats/

Threats (Anthropomorphic)

Unfortunately, natural threats do not cause quite as much devastation as humans do whether it is direct or indirect. In seaside towns, coral can be collected from reefs to sell at tourist shops, ship off for personal aquariums, or even be used in construction of canals and fishponds. Tourists themselves can cause significant damage by not being thoroughly educated on how to interact with the coral reef ecosystems. A study in Fiji showed that if tourists are given information on how to safely interact with fish and coral, damage to reefs was reduced by up to 95%. Not everyone (especially if you do not live by reefs) is aware of how fragile these organisms are and therefore education can help prevent extensive damage. A common activity involves feeding sharks, rays, reef fish, and other animals on the reefs. This is not as beneficial as many would assume since it effectively unbalances the food chain. By feeding algae-eating organisms, the natural algae can be left to overgrow which is detrimental to coral. Small sharks and other toothy creatures have been known to snap at divers and snorkelers, expecting to be fed by human handouts. Conservation organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), warn against feeding or petting reef animals and instead promote passive viewing of the creatures.

Chemicals, pollution, and fishing practices also cause extreme distress in coral reefs.  Hydrocarbons released by oil tankers can alter the growth rate and even the cell structure of corals. Heavy metals can be released by mining in the ocean in which some coral populations are considered highly sensitive. Herbicides used on land make their way into the sea and destroy zooxanthellae, algae, and other sea plants, diminishing the main food sources for marine herbivores. Pesticides can cause physical and genetic mutations to a variety of organisms. Global warming alters the chemistry, temperature, and sea level in every ocean on the planet, and coral reefs can feel the blow. Factors have to be perfect for life forms to grow and thrive in reefs and these changes can wipe out species or even kill the main structure: the coral itself. Pollution causes severe, lasting damage. It takes seventy-five years for a cigarette to break down in the ocean, releasing toxic chemicals for the majority of that span. Plastic bags, bottles, and other debris can tangle animals and keep them from being able to function to their fullest extent. Dolphins can get items wrapped around their jaws and are unable to eat properly while sea turtles can get straws jammed into their nostrils. A plastic bag looks like a tasty jellyfish until it chokes an unsuspecting, hungry creature. Water is clouded immensely by runoff, sewage, and rapid soil erosion which blocks the sunlight and hinders photosynthesis from taking place. Recovery from any threat is stunted by algae overgrowth caused by the limited numbers of fish due to over-fishing. Over-fishing can take out an entire notch in the food chain which disrupts the balance between predators and prey. Other fishing practices that are harmful include the use of explosions and poisons, weighted traps, and purposeful coral demolition to drive out fish. Even boats that are not specifically used for fishing can cause damage with propellers, anchors, and trash being discarded off the deck. Uninformed (or just uncaring) divers and snorkelers can land and step on coral or other organisms. All of these factors take a great toll on reefs that already do not take up that much space in the oceans and grow back at excruciating rates.

A turtle cruising along a coral reef. Photo courtesy of: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2332234/Why-rare-species-coral-reefs-tropical-forests-alpine-meadows-determine-planet-survives-global-disasters.html

A turtle cruising along a coral reef. Photo courtesy of: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2332234/Why-rare-species-coral-reefs-tropical-forests-alpine-meadows-determine-planet-survives-global-disasters.html

Conservation

While this information may seem disheartening, all hope is not yet lost. Conservation efforts are in progress to maintain the beauty of these delicate ecosystems for the future of corals, reefs, and the thousands of organisms (humans included) that rely on them for livelihood.

Government action and scientific studies are two ways specialists work to save the reefs. Marine protected areas are established and laws have been enacted to protect reefs from certain fishing practices (and in some cases, fishing in general) as well as limiting tourism in designated areas. This allows reefs to regain lost ground and lets the current life forms continue in peace. The Great Barrier Reef is a part of a substantial marine protected area, along with parts of the Hawaiian Islands, and even those located off the coasts of developing countries have seen success despite their limited resources. Many lobby government bodies to aid against pollution, to implement laws with strong penalties for injuring reef or illegally fishing in protected areas, and to help maintain these laws with well-equipped task forces. A well-maintained ocean and an abundance of diverse species keeps the ecosystems from being as susceptible to threats. Scientists meanwhile are discovering exact threats to coral and reef ecosystems and figuring out how to combat or reverse these damages. They can see impending storms, predict spikes in water changes, and even track coral growth to show necessary factors in maintaining life in coral reefs. Not all reefs require the same aid and each needs an individualized approach when it comes to protection. Scientists can supply the information to accurately pinpoint what areas are the most concerning and suggest ways to help.

Organizations are actively at work maintaining laws and monitoring the progress of reefs, striving tirelessly to bring the reefs back to their full glory. Educating the public is an important way to stop further harm. By promoting tourists to engage in safe, passive interaction habits, man-made harm can be significantly reduced. These organizations require a vast amount of volunteers and donations to keep their efforts moving. It costs quite a bit of time, work, and money to rebuild these gorgeous reefs. Ocean clean-up crews happen along costs, collecting and properly disposing of waste that can drift off to sea. Recycling can also keep those nasty plastic bags from being mistaken for food in the open ocean or snagging on coral growths. Leave coral and shells to the sea; resist the urge to purchase jewelry and souvenirs made of things a reef cannot survive without. Writing to your local legislation does make a difference. They can provide further information and keep you updated on conservation efforts in your area. Donating money, even as little as 5 dollars a month can impact conservation efforts. Just think of what could be done if every person in your hometown donated that much to save these wonderful ecosystems. If efforts must halt due to disinterest or lack of resources and funds, our grandchildren or even children will only be able to look at pictures of what was once known as “The Great Barrier Reef.”

Coral Reef Conservation Groups:

  • Coral Cay (http://www.coralcay.org/)
    “Providing resources to help sustain livelihoods and alleviate poverty through the protection, restoration and management of coral reefs and tropical forests.”
  • Coral Restoration Foundation (http://www.coralrestoration.org/)
    “Education: Promote awareness of coral reef health and survival, along with the environmental and social benefits of reef ecosystems.
    Action: Engage communities and facilitating partnerships in research, restoration, and understanding of coastal resources.”
    Results: Grow and restore threatened coral species, and enhance reproductive output to stimulate a natural recovery.”
  • The World Fish Center (http://www.worldfishcenter.org/)
    “Our mission is to reduce poverty and hunger by improving fisheries and aquaculture. We strive to achieve large scale, environmentally sustainable, increases in supply and access to fish at affordable prices for poor consumers in developing countries.”
  • Coral Triangle Knowledge Network (http://www.ctknetwork.org/)
    “The CTKN is more than just a website. It is an online hub of knowledge about the Coral Triangle as well as issues and discussions relevant to the Coral Triangle, and everyone is invited to expand this pool of knowledge.”
  • Coral Reef Alliance (http://coral.org/)
    “Working with people around the world—from fishermen to government leaders, divers to scientists, Californians to Fijians—the Coral Reef Alliance protects our most valuable and threatened ecosystem. We lead holistic conservation programs that improve coral reef health and resilience and are replicated across the globe.”
  • Environmental Defense Fund (https://www.edf.org/)
    “Environmental Defense Fund’s mission is to preserve the natural systems on which all life depends. Guided by science and economics, we find practical and lasting solutions to the most serious environmental problems.”
  • Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/)
    “For 40 years, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has managed the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park so it’s protected for the future.”
  • Green Fins (http://www.greenfins.net/)
    “Green Fins, internationally coordinated by Reef-World, are the only recognized environmental set of standards with a comprehensive management approach to provide guidance and support for business owners and national authorities to promote best practices.”
  • Marine Conservation Society (http://www.mcsuk.org/)
    “Mission: To achieve measurable improvements in the state of our seas, marine biodiversity and fish stocks through changes in government policy, industry practice and individual behaviour.”
  • Save Our Seas Foundation (http://saveourseas.com/)
    “In the effort to protect our oceans, the Save Our Seas Foundation funds and supports research, conservation and education projects worldwide, focusing primarily on charismatic threatened wildlife and their habitats.”
  • World Wildlife Fund (http://www.worldwildlife.org/about)
    “WWF’s mission is to conserve nature and reduce the most pressing threats to the diversity of life on Earth. Our vision is to build a future in which people live in harmony with nature.”

Please visit one of the links above or one of the sources below for further information on coral, coral reefs, coral reef ecosystems, threats and damages, and past and ongoing conservation efforts. A change in the tides must take place in order for these crucial habitats to exist in the future or they will disintegrate until they are only a memory for the older generations. The beauty, the color, the shocking array of life, and the innumerable resources gained from coral reefs is worth saving and protecting. It will just take some time and effort from more than a few people on this planet to see the difficult task through.

Sources:

http://ocean.si.edu/corals-and-coral-reefs

http://www.reefrelief.org/learn/coral-reef-ecosystem/

http://coral.org/coral-reefs-101/coral-reef-ecology/coral-reef-biodiversity/

http://www.greatbarrierreef.org/

http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/about-the-reef/facts-about-the-great-barrier-reef

http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/invertebrates/giant-clam/

http://www.coral-reef-info.com/coral-reef-animals.html

http://mesfiji.org/resources/environment/threats-to-coral-reefs-natural-impacts

http://mesfiji.org/resources/environment/threats-to-coral-reefs-human-impacts

http://coralreef.noaa.gov/conservation/methods/

http://coral.org/

http://oceanworld.tamu.edu/students/coral/coral5.htm

http://discoverthecoralreef.weebly.com/food-web.html

http://www.coral-reef-info.com/coral-reef-food-web.html

http://wwf.panda.org/about_our_earth/ecoregions/newcaledonia_barrier_reef.cfm

http://www.worldwildlife.org/places/mesoamerican-reef

http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/where_we_work/coraltriangle/coraltrianglefacts/places/rajaampatindonesia/

http://www.dep.state.fl.us/coastal/habitats/coral/

http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/explorations/13pulleyridge/background/aboutpr/aboutpr.html

http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/threecorals.html

http://coral.org/coral-reefs-101/coral-reef-ecology/types-of-coral-reef-formations/

http://geology.uprm.edu/Morelock/rftypes.htm