Coral bleaching: Why we should all care


Sir David Attenborough the UK’s national treasure, has in recent years turned his attention to our “Blue Planet” commenting on the sadness and devastation that is occurring to coral, coral reefs and the life that depends upon it. In this article, we explore why coral is important and why like Sir David, we should all care.

What is coral?

Coral is defined as a sessile animal that roots itself to the sea bed. Although many people believe that coral are plants, they actually rely on plant-like algae for survival and growth. Although impossible to distinguish individually, corals are made up of thousands of small coral creatures called polyps. Each polyp secretes a solid outer skeleton of calcium carbonate, which in turn attaches itself to another polyp (coral) or rock. Over hundreds of thousands of years, these corals grow to create the beauty we call a coral reef.

There are a variety of corals that can be found at the bottom of the ocean. They all play a vital part in our ecosystem and they form the basis of an incredibly complex food chain. The three main categories of corals that can be found in our oceans include hard corals, soft corals, and deep-sea corals. The hard corals (our focus in this article) form the building of the ocean bed, commonly known as the coral reef. Over time, the hard coral attracts and becomes a magnet for algae called zooxanthellae. The coral houses the algae and in return, the algae provide essential nutrients to the coral. The algae give the coral its beautiful colors and allow the polyps to attach and grow to become a reef.

Why is coral/ coral reefs important?

Coral is extremely important to our ecosystem. The coral reef provides a home for all manner of sea creatures including fish, mollusks and sea turtles, these reefs are teeming with life and biodiversity. Millions of people depend on the reef for food due to the fish they attract. Not only this, but they also have a massive impact on tourism, adding millions of dollars to the local economies every year. Due to its beauty, bright colors and extensive range of animals, the coral reef attracts tourists, divers, and fishermen.

The important function of coral reefs: 

  • They absorb wave energy.
  • They reduce the damage to coastlines caused by storms.
  • They provide a shelter, home, food and health station for millions of marine life.
  • Humans depend on this marine life for food.

Where can coral reefs be found?

Coral reefs can be found in subtropical waters in countries such as Indonesia, Fiji, Solomon Islands and Australia. Of course, the biggest is the Great Barrier Reef, made up of over 2,900 individual reefs and stretching to a distance of over 1,400 miles. The Great Barrier Reef is found off the coast of Queensland in Australia.

Scientists have recently discovered that coral has been around for over 160 million years. This means corals and algae have been alive since the dinosaurs roamed the earth which is quite an achievement when studying how many extreme climates they have had to adapt to. Corals have already lived through a number of environmental changes and climate disasters; there is however a strong fear that (the current) global warming (accelerated by humans) is having a very real negative impact on coral reefs.

What is coral bleaching and why is it important?

Bleaching occurs when there is a change in the environment which causes stress to the algae. When this happens, Corals will release the algae living within their tissue, ultimately causing them to turn white – also known as bleaching. 

If the temperature of the water becomes too hot or too cold, corals have been known to die in these circumstances, which can have a devastating effect on the ocean. Without the Reef, there wouldn’t be a home for a quarter of all marine life which in turn has a cataclysmic effect on the whole ecosystem, which in turn impacts our way of life.

Why is this happening now? There are a number of factors, however humans are the main culprit and through our activities of consumption, production and travel, we are having a direct impact on global warming and pollution.

What are scientists predicting?

If bleaching continues to the extent it has over recent years, it will devastate not only coral communities, but also marine life, and human communities that depend on the Reef for food, livelihoods, and wellbeing. If we continue along this trajectory, by 2050, it is thought that over 90% of all coral reefs will disappear. By 2100, they will be non-existent. This is why it’s so important we make changes to the way we live immediately.

Is there any hope – what is happening to counter bleaching?

Over the past five years or so, the message about the importance of combatting global warming and taking care of our ecosystems has dominated our headlines. We know that tackling global warming will affect the temperature of our oceans and will therefore reduce the frequency and destruction caused by bleaching.

In 2018 the Australian government announced a $500 million boost for reef protection. Their largest ever single investment to date for reef protection. This forms part of their wider ‘Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan’.

The Great Barrier Reef is currently going through a period of bleaching. However, the impact is not as significant as it was back in 2016, which shows that the actions presently being taken are having a somewhat positive effect.

Further bleaching is inevitable, but steps can be taken nationally and internationally to give reefs a fighting chance. To name a few, at an international level, reducing carbon emissions will help reduce the warming of the oceans. And at a national level, improving the quality of water that flows into the reef. Poor water quality can be particularly harmful for reproduction, coral growth and the survival of young coral. The Great Barrier Reef Gully and Streambank Joint Program is an example of the measures that are being put in place. The program focuses on stopping gully and streambank erosion to reduce the amount of sediment flowing into the reef.

Countries such as Australia, Indonesia, Western Mexico, Eastern Africa, and all others who are fortunate enough to have a beautiful reef to care for, are being urged to do much more. The UN has said that all countries should adopt high targets when it comes to climate change in order to see and make a significant difference. These countries should have a strategy in place, to learn about the variety of coral living in the reef and to research and understand what is needed to ensure coral bleaching is minimized as much as possible.

What can you do as an individual?

As individuals, there’s much we can do to help maintain our beautiful Reefs. We can reduce our carbon footprint by walking and cycling rather than driving. We can offer our time to volunteer to clean up the rubbish collecting on our beaches which can get caught in the reef. We could also work to minimize the use of fertilizers and pesticides that can end up in our oceans. Here are five impactful steps we can all take to make a significant difference:

  1. Travel less (a focus on reducing your air travel).
  2. Organize a beach clean-up event or why not even arrange to spend a morning per week to collect rubbish from our beaches?
  3. Use less water, having a shower instead of a bath can make a difference.
  4. Turn your heating down at home and instead put on an extra jumper or use a blanket to conserve heat.
  5. Spend time learning about a coral reef and its amazing biodiversity, start to talk about this to your friends and family, make them aware.

You can support the change currently happening by volunteering at your local sea life organization, who work tirelessly to educate and promote the importance of this natural wonder. You could also share your knowledge and advice with friends and family so that they too can make a difference to our coral reefs.

Summary

Bleaching has devastating consequences on the ocean, which ultimately affects humans, which is why it’s imperative that we all work together to make a difference, to protect biodiversity and to save our planet. We must work together to tackle global warming and to educate others who simply don’t understand the importance of the coral reef.

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