You’ve probably heard that coral reefs are in worldwide decline. If you read this blog that probably matters to you intrinsically, which is great. But what if you were a welder from Kansas who has never seen a reef? Why would you care about them then? That is what I will attempt to explain in this post.
Let’s start with the basics. What is a reef?
A reef is a bar of sand, rock, coral, or similar material lying below the surface of a body of water. We tend to think of coral reefs when we hear this term, but there are many other types of reefs (rock reefs, oyster reefs, artificial reefs, etc). For the sake of simplicity let’s focus on coral reefs for the rest of our examples.
These reefs are more than just a pretty thing to look at. They are actually incredibly valuable to both the local community and to the world. Here are a few reasons why everyone (not just people who live on the coast) should care about reefs.
1.) Economics: Coral reefs (and other reefs) are valuable sources of economic gain. They provide a value of over $7 trillion USD per year (globally). Check out this video to see how that compares to the economies of major countries around the world.
What makes coral reefs so valuable? They and other coastal habitats like mangroves are home to many organisms that we like to eat. Juvenile fish often live on reefs because they provide a concentrated food source and a place to hide to avoid getting eaten. In the U.S. alone, fisheries associated with coral reefs are worth over $100 million per year (source: NOAA). In addition to fisheries, coral reefs also provide a substantial amount of tourism dollars. Tourism accounts for around 33% of the GDP in Belize and about 30% of employment. Most developing nations that have coral reefs will have numbers similar to these.
2.) Food: Have you ever eaten fish? What about spiny lobster or octopus? If you enjoy eating seafood then coral reefs are vitally important to your lifestyle. As previously mentioned, they harbor tons of juvenile fish that will grow up to be big and commercially important. They also harbor about 25% of the oceans diversity, so there are plenty of organisms on the reef (some are delicious, others aren’t). As reefs continue to decline fish stocks will do the same. Overfishing will also make fish stocks decline. Adding all of this together leads us to conclude that we will likely have a hard time sustaining our current consumption. So if you want to enjoy the odd lobster or snapper every now and then for the foreseeable future, you should protect reefs and eat sustainable seafood. In developing nations, reefs are vitally important food sources and as they decline people may starve. This is already happening in Africa where some islanders who rely on fish for almost all of their food are now being forced to move, starve, or forage. In these same areas, families are being forced to choose between protection from malaria or eating, as they often have to use mosquito nets to catch small fish because all of the big fish are gone.
3.) Coastal Protection: Have you ever taken a vacation to the Florida Keys, Mexico, or even the beaches of North Carolina? Would you like to do so in the future? If you answered yes to either of these questions then you want to protect reefs (because they protect you). One of the main functions of reefs (coral reefs, rock reefs, oyster reefs, etc…) is shoreline protection. Reefs are shallow and sometimes the ridges on reefs can even grow up to or above the surface! These shallow areas can decrease wave energy by 95%. Essentially, reefs take the brunt of the waves, saving the shoreline from a huge amount of energy that would cause faster shoreline erosion on a massive scale. Shoreline erosion is pretty important when you are in the Outer Banks of North Carolina where the sand island you are on is only 1 mile wide (less in many cases). We don’t have coral reefs in that part of the US, but there are still plenty of hard bottom reefs, oyster reefs, and seagrass beds that can diminish wave action. What if a hurricane or tsunami come by? Reefs are often devastated by these events due to high wave action, but without reefs taking the hit it would be the coastline. Or someone’s coastal home. Reefs literally save millions of lives every year. With the frequency and intensity of major storms expected to increase with continued climate change, this function becomes even more important.
So, to summarize…
Reefs keep you and the people/places you care about safe. They also provide you and many others globally with food and money. Reefs are vital for life on this planet. Losing them would be a serious blow to global health and economics. Protecting them on a global scale is hard, but you can do your part with small lifestyle changes (eat sustainable seafood, lower your carbon footprint [bike, walk, bus, carpool, use fewer petroleum products], and ditch single use plastic items for reusable alternatives [plastic bags are a good place to start!]). You can also donate money to organizations like The Nature Conservancy . For more tips and tricks, find me on twitter @jbaumann3 or @underthecblog and ask!