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#BTColumn – The critical role of coral reefs

by Barbados Today
6 min read

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By Wayne Campbell

“Coral reefs occupy less than one per cent of the ocean floor; yet they are home to more than 25 per cent of marine life. Human activity and a warming planet are rapidly degrading these precious and fragile ecosystems.” – United Nations Environment Programme. 

Many of us take the coral reefs for granted. This nonchalant attitude to them is not purposeful, but due to the fact that we do not encounter coral reefs very often. Additionally, there is not much public education regarding the importance of coral reefs to our environment.

Each year World Reef Day is observed on June 1.  The day is set aside to engage in public education concerning how we can all take action in our everyday lives for the betterment of our oceans and coral reefs.  Earth.org states that a coral reef is a colony of hundreds of thousands of individual animals called coral polyps. These form when free-swimming coral larvae get attached to rocks or other hard surfaces underwater, mainly along the coastlines of islands and continents. These polyps are usually small but they form large structures underwater composed of the skeletons of marine invertebrates. A singular polyp has only one opening which is used for consuming food as well as excreting waste. This opening is covered with tentacles to capture its food, keeping clear of debris and defending oneself from any danger.

Corals feed either on small marine life such as fish and plankton and catch them using their tentacles attached at the opening, or on algae called zooxanthellae, which are a great source of energy to them. Hence, corals can be either carnivorous or herbivorous. Another interesting fact about corals is that some of the species are hermaphrodites or bisexual, meaning one coral polyp produces both eggs and sperms at the same time. Other species are gonochoric, meaning that the polyps produce either the eggs or the sperm, but not both. In this case, neighbouring reefs rely on each other for successful reproduction.

The Status of Coral Reefs of the World 2020 reports shows that between 2009 and 2018 there was a progressive loss of approximately 14 per cent of the coral from the world’s coral reefs primarily caused by recurring large-scale bleaching events. Additionally, the report paints a picture of declining coral, and an increasing amount of algae which is a sign of declining coral health. However, all is not lost as the report also highlighted the incredible ability of coral reefs to recover when they are not disturbed by local or global threats.

Coral reefs are one of the oldest ecosystems in the ocean and it can take thousands of years for the full development of a coral reef from the first formation of a polyp from colonizing larvae. In addition to being such a complex ecosystem, they provide a home to thousands of marine species and absorb the excess carbon dioxide in the water coining the term “rainforests of the sea”. 

Coral reefs undergo a natural process of bleaching when water temperatures are warmer in the summer. However, global warming and the increasing number of heat waves in recent years are affecting a larger area of the reefs. The forecast regarding heat waves for Jamaica is disturbing as the meteorologist service is predicting at least 15 to 20 heat wave days through to the end of August 2023.

Sustainable Development Goal

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal #14 addresses life below water.  The UN states that destructive trends in ocean health have not abated. The ocean, the world’s largest ecosystem, continues to be endangered by rising acidification, eutrophication, declining fish stocks and mounting plastic pollution. While there has been some progress in expanding marine protected areas and combating illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing over the years, more concerted efforts and acceleration are urgently needed. As a result, urgent and coordinated global action is needed to continue to advance towards SDG14.

The economic contribution of tourism to coral reefs is estimated at $36 billion to the global economy each year. This revenue supports millions of jobs in restaurants, hotels, tour operations, transportation companies, and more. Without spectacular reefs to visit, these tourist numbers would fall sharply and the impact would devastate local businesses. Coral reefs have an important role to play regarding the protection of coastlines by providing a natural buffer against powerful waves and extreme weather. Without them, shorelines would be vulnerable to erosion and rising sea levels would push coast-dwelling communities out of their homes.

It is estimated that nearly 200 million people rely on coral reefs to safeguard them from storms. This means that reefs already play a critical (and naturally cost-effective) role in protecting human lives. It would be cost-prohibitive to construct sea walls for the same level of protection and as a result many coastal cities would be in constant danger.

 Did you know coral reefs are often referred to as the ‘medicine chests of the sea’? That’s because the plants and animals that live within the reef hold the key to new treatments for a whole bunch of diseases and ailments. By researching the corals’ natural chemical defenses, scientists are able to develop medicines to treat all sorts: from cancer and arthritis, to Alzheimer’s and heart disease. This means the health of our coral reefs is directly tied to our own health.

The Caribbean has ten per cent of the world’s coral reefs, and the objective is to safeguard and create healthier and more resilient ecosystems that will contribute significantly to increased biodiversity, economic prosperity and food security in the four targeted countries.

Jamaica’s capacity to conserve and restore its coral reefs is being bolstered under the six-year CoralCarib project through funding from Germany’s International Climate Initiative (IKI). The project will also improve local capacity to carry out sustainable livelihood activities for reef-dependent communities, assess and share the value of coral reef ecosystem services, and enhance enabling conditions through policy and resource mobilization.

As we celebrate World Reef Day let us recommit ourselves to a global campaign to highlight the plight of our reefs as humanity continues to destroy our corals by overfishing and pollution. Let us also heighten our collective awareness regarding our duty in being stewards of the environment. 

Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and or gender issues.


@WayneCamo ©#WorldReefDay

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