Coral Reefs, Sustainability, and their Impact for the Future

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            The ideas of ecoconsciousness and sustainability of the Earth’s natural resources have been around, accessibly, for about twenty years, but, within the last five years, the terms have become part of the American vernacular.  Going green is the new thing—even celebrities are promoting their “green” vehicles, their “eco-friendly” homes, and their “organic-only” diets.  Ecoconsciousness is now even more cost-effective for American’s than ever before.  Recycled wallpaper, flooring, and even clothing are available for less cost than most brand-name equivalents.  And even the knowledge that each human has a carbon footprint that is impacting the Earth’s survival has become something that elementary school children are taught to think about. 

But with becoming eco-friendly on the forefront of American consciousness, how much thought is given to the sustainability of the Earth’s truly non-renewable resources—like the coral reefs?  Sure, promoting eco-friendly manufacturing and materials will help the environment in the long run—but what about conserving something that might not make it to that long run?

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Mathew Stein’s book discusses the value technology has played in the lives of humanity over the centuries.  He also discusses how, by advancing technologically, humans are destroying the planet by the very essence of their creation, commenting that, “indeed, the entire system has failure built into it.  It is based on the ever-increasing consumption of depleting, non-renewable energy resources.  As we consume the cheapest, most easily accessed of those resources and are forced down the net-energy ladder,  the technological systems on which we depend will inevitably shudder and give way” (xv).  Stein is introducing the theory that humanity is simply living on the Earth, taking what it needs to survive and thrive without giving thought to the fact that most resources on the planet are non-renewable.

Why should coral reefs be considered as a worthy project for sustainability and conservation?  Think of the reefs as an underwater rainforest, where “deep coral habitats appear to be much more extensive and important than previously known, particularly with respect to supporting biologically diverse faunal assemblages” (Lumsden, 1).  Coral reefs are a mostly forgotten ecology of unique marine life and aquatic activity, yet they are being depleted at an alarming rate.  The US Geological Survey found that “coral cover [worldwide] continued to decline through the end of 2007, even during periods of cooler water temperature. The mean coral cover dropped from 21.4 percent to 8.3 percent over the two years, a decrease of 61 percent.”  These rates are unprecedented, and, like the rainforest, the coral reefs are being depleted faster than anything can be done to save them.

Eventually, maybe ten years from now, maybe ten thousand, the Earth will run out of natural resources with which to support an ever-increasing population.  There will come a point where humanity cannot look back and save what has been depleted.  And, perhaps, that is why sustainability has become more important now than ever before.

The NOAA did a study in December 2008 on better ways to sustain the coral reef systems of the world.  Presumably after much research, they came up with the following recommendations: “1) the need to develop alternative livelihoods for fishers; 2) the need to involve local community members in decision making processes for coastal and resource management; and 3) the need to improve education and awareness of the value of healthy coral ecosystems.” Obviously (and that’s being polite), these recommendations have been seen before as the best ways to begin sustainability of a resource.  Perhaps people would understand better and do their part more if more specific alternatives for sustainability were defined.  Improving education and looking into providing new alternatives for fisherman should be the foundations for sustaining the coral reefs, and not the recommendations for the future of their conservation.

            In looking at the report on sustaining the coral reef systems, Kacky Andrews, Director of the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program stated that “while we strive to minimize human impacts to reefs, I think this study also points to the critical need to consider how those negative changes to the reefs impact humans as well. The goal here is sustainable use of resources. By listening to local communities we can better mitigate both human impacts on the reef as well as the effects of those negative changes on the community.”  Andrews also mentions that the same information has been reported for the last twenty years on ideas for better sustainability—but comments that “the fact that they are still emerging as the most important recommendations by dozens of communities indicates that coastal management efforts have not yet been able to effectively implement these site level recommendations in many parts of the world” (NOAA).  Indeed, while sustainability is more important than ever, it seems to remain an idea, with little real and definable action being taken.

            The Coral Reef Restoration Handbook depicts the methods to rehabilitation for the world’s endangered coral reefs.  As a way of introduction, the author comments that “for thousands of years coral reefs have survived natural impacts, such as storms, diseases, and predation.  What they cannot withstand is the combination of these natural impacts with severe or repeated anthropogenic damage, such as overfishing, sedimentation, and excess nutrients” ( Precht, 25).  Furthermore, the “reefs around Jamaica and San Andres have been devastated by this combination…[moreover], South Florida’s reefs are so ‘threatened’ that they may disappear in 20 to 40 years” (25).  Within one lifetime, the reefs around Florida’s tip could be gone forever.

            Anthropogenic impacts to the coral reefs “have occurred throughout human history, ranging from collection in early history to vessel groundings, anchor damage, blast fishing, coral mining, dredging, coastal development, water quality degradation…[and] recreation” (Precht, 39).  While the impacts of human interaction with the coral reefs has been happening for centuries, it wasn’t until the 1970’s that the “scientists became alarmed by the rapid, widespread decline in coral reefs around the world…[when they noticed the signs of] coral disease, coral bleaching, and anthropogenic impacts” (39).  Unfortunately, the scientists also discovered that “the time required for the natural recovery of a disturbed reef is usually on the order of decades” (39).  But, it’s even worse than that.

Things as simple as sunscreen can be causing the death of the reefs.  Ker Than explains that “the sunscreen that you dutifully slather on before a swim on the beach may be protecting your body—but a new study finds that the chemicals are also killing coral reefs worldwide.”  Turns out, the chemicals found in sunscreen “cause the [dormant viruses in algae] to replicate until their algae hosts explode, spilling viruses into the surrounding seawater, where they can infect neighboring coral communities” (Than).  Even if recovery began today, the reefs wouldn’t see an improvement for years—especially since something so simple as sunscreen can be one of the main causes of the destruction.

            Even so, “coral reef restoration projects and studies have been implemented to prevent injury to corals…to hasten coral reef recovery from anthropogenic or natural impacts, to enhance fisheries habitat, and to enhance the aesthetic appearance of reefs for tourism” (Precht, 40).  While recovery efforts have been in place to sustain and improve the coral reefs in the world’s oceans, another much more significant reason than simply aesthetic reasons and tourism must be considered.  People often forget that the reefs are home to thousands of species of marine and aquatic life.  When the reefs die, so will these species.

Scuba diving among the coral reefs has been a cherished activity for years.  The chance to dive below the surface and see strange, mythical-like creatures in their natural habitat has always held a certain allure.  Imagine, floating below the surface as a purple seahorse a foot tall emerges from its home in the sea anemone and peers cautiously about before darting between the rising oxygen bubbles.

However, this underwater oasis could soon be lost forever.  Jane Lubchenco, professor of marine biology at Oregon State University was asked about how she thought the coral reefs had changed since the 1970’s.  She answered that “when I was a young professor at Harvard, I taught a class at the marine laboratory at Discovery Bay on the north coast of Jamaica. The reef there was among the most spectacular in the world…[with] the most astounding diversity of fish and glorious invertebrates” (Dreifus).  Lost in reflection for a moment, it was clear the Lubchenco was remembering a beautiful, nearly indescribable world.  When prodded about her return trip to the same reef, she commented that “I was appalled to see this former Garden of Eden transformed into a wasteland. I was so stunned, I broke into tears, crying into my mask. Most of the corals were dead. Weedy algae covered every surface” (Dreifus). Clearly, she was distraught by her return visit.

Lubchenco then commented on what had caused the wasteland, explaining that “the reef had been assaulted by sewage dumping, fertilizer pollution, massive overfishing, a disease that had wiped out sea urchins, and finally a hurricane. I wish this were an isolated story. However, nearly every coral reef in the world is suffering from similar degradation. All are threatened, though some are in worse shape than others” (Dreifus).  In fact, her story is now more and more common.  Scuba divers from ten years ago are returning to the reefs they once loved only to find them destroyed by anthropogenic impacts.

Overall, sustaining Earth’s natural resources should become a priority in the lives of everyone wishing to live on the planet for the next thirty years.  If it doesn’t become so, then there probably won’t be a world left for the next generation to enjoy.  Within the last twenty years alone, the ocean’s coral reefs have changed so drastically that the world is at risk of losing thousands of species to extinction.  Conservation efforts are only the beginning.  As more studies are done to determine the root causes of the devastation of the coral reefs, then more can be done to save them before it is too late.  And saving them before they are destroyed completely, at this point, is the best the world can hope for.

Works Consulted.

Dreifus, Claudia.  “Q & A: Troubled Waters.”  On Earth: An Independent Publication of the

Natural Resources Defense Council June 1, 2007: Issue Frontlines.

Lumsden SE, Hourigan TF, Bruckner AW, Dorr G (eds.) 2007. The State of Deep Coral

Ecosystems of the United States. NOAA Technical Memorandum CRCP-3. Silver Spring


NOAA Headquarters.  “First Ever Socioeconomic Study on Coral Reefs Points to Challenges of

Costal Resource Management.”  Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network December 10,


Precht, William.  Coral Reef Restoration Handbook.  New York: CRC Press, 2006.

Ros, Rosie.  “Exploring Coral Reef Sustainability with New Technologies.”  Amazines January

3, 2009: <>.

Stein, Mathew.  When Technology Fails.  New York: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008.

Than, Ker.  “Swimmers’ Sunscreen Killing Off Coral.”  National Geographic January 29, 2008:


US Geological Survey.  Deep Coral Habitats Appear to be Much More Extensive and Important

than Previously known, Particularly with Respect to Supporting Biologically Diverse

Faunal Assemblages.  US Department of the Interior, June 2008.


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