Saving the Coral Reefs

By Weber, Peter K. | The Futurist, July-August 1993 | Go to article overview

Saving the Coral Reefs


Weber, Peter K., The Futurist


Coral reefs are arguably the world's most beautiful habitats. But reefs are vulnerable to climate change, pollution, and abuse by humans, making them among the most threatened ecosystems on the planet.

Coral reefs are renowned as underwater marvels of fluorescent colors, fantastic shapes, and improbable creatures. Delicate purple sea fans, blood-red sponges, spiny pufferfish, poisonous scorpionfish, giant clams, yellow-lip snakes, and giant manta rays are just a small sample of the fascinating residents that awe visitors from the terrestrial realm. Iridescent fish dart between the intricate coral formations. For their beauty alone, reefs rank as one of the greatest treasures of the planet.

Coral reefs are also among the most endangered ecosystems on Earth. Human beings have damaged or destroyed significant amounts of reef off the coasts of 93 countries, according to a study in the mid-1980s by the World Conservation Union and the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP).

Silt from deforested lands and pollution from crowded coastlines choke them, and overuse by coral miners, fishers, and even tourists deplete and destroy them. At current rates of destruction, much of the world's reefs could be destroyed in the next 50 years.

Unmined Riches

Concern over the decline of these tropical ecosystems, however, is not solely focused on their magical appearance. Coral reefs are among the most biologically diverse ecosystems on Earth. Covering only 0.17% of the ocean floor--an area the size of Texas--coral reefs are home to perhaps one-fourth of all marine species, earning them the title "the tropical rain forests of the oceans."

Globally, coral reefs are thought to be second only to tropical rain forests in terms of the number of species they contain. Like the rain forests, reefs hold considerable untapped potential to contribute to science, particularly medicine. Kainic acid, collected from reef organisms in Japan and Taiwan, is used as a diagnostic chemical to investigate Huntington's chorea, a rare but fatal disease of the nervous system. Other reef organisms produce chemicals useful for cancer and AIDS research.

Corals themselves produce a natural sunscreen, which chemists are developing for the Australian market, and their porous limestone skeletons are promising for bone grafts in humans.

For the 109 countries whose shores are lined with more than 100,000 kilometers of reefs, they provide immeasurable service by protecting coastal lands from the erosive forces of the sea. For many local people reefs are saltwater supermarkets of food and raw materials. Pacific Islanders obtain up to 90% of their animal protein from reef fish, and people in Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, and parts of southern Asia and eastern Africa also derive a substantial portion of their protein from reef fish. Worldwide, reefs yield approximately one-tenth of all fish caught for human consumption, or 4 to 8 million tons annually.

Reef Ecology

Among the many inhabitants of tropical reefs, corals have a key role. The warm, clear waters where reefs form are deficient in nutrients that would typically allow marine life to flourish. Corals overcome this deficiency through a clever bit of evolution. The coral animal (a sedentary relative of jellyfish) takes advantage of the abundant sunlight in the clear waters by harnessing microscopic algae. The algae live in the corals' translucent tissues and provide them with food and oxygen from photosynthesis. The corals in turn recycle carbon dioxide and other materials for the algae to use, making efficient use of scarce nutrients.

This symbiotic relationship between corals and algae is sensitive to such changes in the environment as cloudy waters or extreme temperatures. The stress on the corals can cause them to expel their algae, a phenomenon known as bleaching. With the algae gone, the white limestone of the coral skeleton is visible, and the corals die if the stress is not relieved. …

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