What are Coral Reefs?
Coral colonies are made up of many tiny individual coral animals which create a skeleton made of rock that makes the structure we think of as coral reefs. These animals have many tiny plants living inside their cells which provide the coral with energy to survive and grow. Corals can supplement this by catching food using stinging tentacles.
Millions of people across the world depend on coral reefs for food and their jobs. Coral reefs also provide recreational, cultural and economic benefits to those who live nearby, and to visitors. These services are valued at approximately $172-375 billion annually.
Around 25% of coral reefs have already been damaged beyond repair, and another 75% of all coral reefs are at risk today. This figure is set to rise to over 99% by 2050.
Threats to Coral Reefs
75% of coral reefs across the world are currently threatened by:
- Ocean acidification – a change in the ocean’s chemistry which is affecting the growing ability of coral. The acidity of our oceans is increasing because of increasing carbon dioxide emissions. At a certain point, the coral’s skeleton dissolves.
- Rising sea temperatures – Which leads
to coral bleaching where the coral lose the tiny plants that provide them with the energy they need to survive. This can be fatal. Rising sea temperatures are one of the primary physical impacts of climate change.
- Over-fishing – the removal of too many fish from coral reefs reduces the numbers of fish who eat the fast-growing seaweed. As a result, this seaweed out-competes the corals for food and light, dominating the reef and killing the corals.
- Destructive fishing techniques – the use of dynamite and cyanide to catch fish damages and kills coral by blasting them to smithereens or poisoning them.
- The trade in coral – this lucrative trade sees 3.4 million corals exported from Indonesia alone with millions more being exported from other countries. For many kinds of corals, this trade is a problem threatening their survival. Monitoring Trade in Corals and Marine Life
- Coastal development – reclaiming of land, sediment from coastal construction and unsustainable growth of tourism negatively affects coral reefs. This can be as simple as building resorts directly on top of reefs, using reef materials for construction, or sewage from these developments being pumped straight into the sea.
- Pollution – waste from human activities is continually washed onto coral reefs including sewage, oil and chemicals, causing coral disease and death.
Coral are the main builders of the reefs which are the biggest living structures made by animals on Earth - the Great Barrier Reef can be seen from space! These incredible animals evolved about 450 million years ago and there are over 800 different types of coral spread across the world. While most corals are found in tropical waters, there are corals living in colder waters and in the deep sea. We even have corals that live in the sea around the UK.
Coral reefs comprise about 0.2% of the surface area of the oceans, but harbour a quarter of the world's marine life.
The Chagos Marine Reserve in the Indian Ocean is the biggest marine reserve in the world. It is an area twice the size of the UK and was fully protected as of April 1, 2010.
Chagos, and other similar large marine reserves, are particularly important in securing a future for our oceans. ZSL played a role in establishing the Chagos marine reserve, as part of the Chagos Environment Network, and continues to be active in its conservation.
Solutions to the threats facing coral reefs include; reducing CO2 emissions to slow the rate of ocean acidification and the change in sea temperature, creation of marine reserves to protect coral reefs from the effects of over-fishing, destructive fishing techniques, coastal development and pollution, and controls on the trade of coral and enforcement of laws that help avoid over-exploitation.
For more information on what is being done to protect coral reefs see the GLOBE Action Plan for Coral Reefs
How YOU Can Help
You personally can help protect and conserve coral reefs by reducing your carbon footprint, eating less fish and using the Selfridges Good Fish Guide to help you choose which fish are best to eat. You can also help by not buying coral curios or jewellery containing coral. If you visit coral reefs when on holiday avoid touching or physically damaging the reef and use boat and tour operators that have an eco-friendly policy.
Selfridges is funding a new no-take marine reserve in the Philippines as a lasting legacy of Project Ocean. It will be located in the Danajon Bank, which is a rare double barrier reef and will be community managed. This marine reserve will provide protection from many of the threats facing coral reefs in the Philippines and provide long-term benefits to the people who depend on the reef for food and income.
Read more about Project Ocean here