Undoing the Damage We’ve Done

Humans have an undeniable impact on the world around them, but it’s often hard to see the damage we’ve done when it’s out of sight under the sea. Often compared to the terrestrial biome of the tropical rainforest, coral reefs are bursting with biodiversity despite their relatively small size. And again similar to the tropical rainforest, coral reefs are dying at alarming rates due to human actions. However, recognizing the danger that coral reefs are in, conservationists, biologists, and activists are taking action across the world, raising awareness of the issues, researching management techniques, and advising the general public on how they can help protect these fragile ecosystems.

Coral reefs are important ecosystems provide habitat for thousands of different species, ranging from predatory fish to symbiotic single-celled organisms, and are especially critical for providing nursery habitat for young.

Reefs don’t just support marine life; humans vastly benefit from the presence of reefs and their biodiversity, and not because they provide us with food. Coral reefs can protect land from erosion by taking the brunt of wave energy heading for shorelines. This is relevant for humans as erosion can be detrimental for settlements and cities, especially with rising sea levels already posing serious threats to coasts. Additionally, tourists regularly flock to coral reefs because of their aesthetic qualities and the exposure to with marine life. These tourists bring in money to coastal economies, especially in developing areas such as the Caribbean and Pacific Islands 1.

Humans are negatively impacting coral reefs from all sides. The most global and widely reaching of these impact is climate change, as ocean acidification is breaking down calcium carbonate structures while increasing temperatures are killing off coral polyps as well as the inhabitants of these reefs. More locally, reefs suffer physical damage from anchoring, tourism, and marine debris. Additionally, eutrophication, or the sharp increase in nutrients, has been increasing due to human sewage inputs as well as agricultural practices, which provides an advantage to coral competitors like macroalgaes. Lastly, overexploitation is removing resources faster than they can be replaced, slowly emptying corals of any signs of life 2,3.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the dim future for coral reefs, there are dedicated humans out there that have made it their mission to protect coral reefs and the marine life that call reefs home. Without hope for the future, there is no point for conservation efforts, but luckily there are a number of things that should be giving us hope. One example is in this image, which features a sunken ship serving as an artificial reef at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which is just one creative way humans can offset tourist pressure at coral reefs while providing safe habitat for marine life 4, 5.

One of four sunken ships featured at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Each ship and site was critically evaluated before installation, and sites are regularly monitored and evaluated. Source: Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, NOAA

Topics in this blog series will focus on positive anthropogenic effects and effective conservation methods on coral reefs by highlighting ways scientists and activists are fighting back against the continuing damage we are dealing to these beautiful ecosystems. This blog will cover projects such as declaring reefs to be protected areas, the creation of artificial reefs, and activism focusing around reefs, culminating in ways you as an individual can do your part to reduce your impact on marine life. I hope you will join me on this exploration of how humans are attempting to remedy this dire situation under the sea.

  1. Correa, Adrienne S. “Course Overview, Why Reefs Matter.” Coral Reef Ecosystems, 12 January 2017, Rice University, Houston TX. Class Lecture.
  2. Mora, Camilo. “A Clear Human Footprint in the Coral Reefs of the Caribbean.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 275, no. 1636 (April 7, 2008): 767. doi:10.1098/rspb.2007.1472.
  3. Halpern, Benjamin S., Shaun Walbridge, Kimberly A. Selkoe, Carrie V. Kappel, Fiorenza Micheli, Caterina D’Agrosa, John F. Bruno, et al. “A Global Map of Human Impact on Marine Ecosystems.” Science 319, no. 5865 (February 15, 2008): 948. doi:10.1126/science.1149345.
  4. Hackradt, Carlos Werner, Fabiana Cézar Félix-Hackradt, and José Antonio García-Charton. “Influence of Habitat Structure on Fish Assemblage of an Artificial Reef in Southern Brazil.” Marine Environmental Research 72, no. 5 (December 2011): 235–47. doi:10.1016/j.marenvres.2011.09.006.
  5. Feary, David A., John A. Burt, and Aaron Bartholomew. “Artificial Marine Habitats in the Arabian Gulf: Review of Current Use, Benefits and Management Implications.” Ocean & Coastal Management 54, no. 10 (October 2011): 742–49. doi:10.1016/j.ocecoaman.2011.07.008.
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