Coral reefs are a result of calcium carbonate, which is secreted by corals. They reside in underwater colonies and are composed of tiny species of animals. Initially, the coral reefs begin their development as stony corals (Darwin). These stony corals evolve into polyps which, in turn, form clusters of polyps. The result is a coral reef. A coral reef is the lifeblood of many plants and animals that humans consume on a daily basis.
The polyps are fascinating in that they resemble small sea anemones. Polyps and sea anemones are closely related. However, the polyps in coral reefs have exoskeletons. The exoskeleton of a polyp is a secretion of carbonate which forms a hard shield that protects the internal structures inside the organism (Darwin).
Coral reefs thrive in an environment that is clear, sunny, warm, shallow, and in areas of rough and turbulent water. The majority of coral reefs are found in water that is less than fifty meters in depth. The Great Barrier Reef is an exception to this because it inhabits a continental shelf. The Maldive Reef can be found deep in the ocean and is encompassed by islands. Atolls are reefs that form around an island that falls below the surface of the ocean (Darwin).
There are three principal zones to the coral reef. The first zone is the fore reef, followed by the reef crest, and then the back reef. These zones provide the lifeline for the exchange of sediments, seawater, marine life, and nutrients to keep the ecosystem of the coral reef running smoothly (Darwin).
The vast majority of coral reefs are found in the Indo-Pacific region. This area includes the Pacific, Southeast Asia, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean. Most coral reefs live in tropical or temperate waters. However, shallow water coral reefs only exist thirty degrees north to thirty degrees south of the equator. These tropical coral reefs are not found in waters that are over fifty meters in depth. The ideal temperature for the sustainability of a coral reef is nearly eighty degrees Fahrenheit (UNEP).
The different types of coral reefs are the fringing reef, the barrier reef, and the atoll reef. The fringing reef can be found by the shore. The barrier reef, as the name suggests, is found away from the shore and is barricaded by a lagoon or a water channel. The atoll reef was discussed earlier, and is a continuous reef that resides around a lagoon. An atoll reef does not have a central island.
There are many types of plants and animals that reside in coral reefs. Fish are the principal inhabitants of coral reefs. Cnidarians, sponges, and seabirds also live in coral reefs (Darwin). What humans refer to as “seafood” also lives in the coral reefs. Some examples are lobsters, shrimp, and crabs. Beautiful sea creatures like sea turtles, starfish, and sea urchins are inhabitants of coral reefs. Dolphins also visit coral reefs but do not inhabit them (Darwin).
Coral reefs benefit human beings in various ways. They provide protection the world’s coastlines, increase tourism, provide food from the fisheries, provide jobs to those who work in the fisheries, and increase the overall beauty of the ecosystem.
Coral reefs are in danger of extinction. This is mainly due to contamination of the surrounding water. Blast fishing, overfishing disease, and canal digging are some of the other reasons why coral reefs are in danger. Global warming is also a threat to the survival of coral reefs. This is because, as the temperature of the water rises, the acidity or PH kills the reefs. This is a process known as bleaching (Kleypas).
In 1998 sixteen-percent of the entire population of coral reefs died as a result of El Nina (Kleypas). The bleaching of coral reefs is of paramount concern to scientists. Bleaching makes coral reefs highly susceptible to disease. As a result, the coral reefs cannot maintain normal growth cycles.
Another major threat to coral reefs is from boaters. Boaters often drop anchor, or run aground on coral reef beds. An accidental grounding is ruinous to a coral reef because the reef can be entirely wiped out. Even boaters who drop anchor in the surrounding sand can stir up enough turbulence to disrupt the ecosystem of a coral reef (Reef Relief).
It is imperative that coral reefs be protected in order for the plants and animals that are dependent upon them to survive. Every effort should be made to protect the valuable ecosystems that are nursed by the coral reefs. Currently, coral reefs are protected by Marine Protected Areas. MPAs restrict fishing and provide for the protection of the habitat of the coral reefs. The Marine Protected Areas are operated much like the wildlife refuges and the nationals parks (US Department of Commerce).
Humans are responsible for the conservation of coral reefs. Responsible and concerned citizens should lobby Congress to impose strict regulations for the conservation of coral reefs. One of the greatest problems facing the entire ecosystem and coral reefs is Global Warming. Global Warming causes the water temperature to rise to such an extent that entire populations of species die (Kleypas).
Boaters should pay particular attention when lowering their anchor to ensure that they are not setting it on a coral reef bed. Additionally, people should be aware of their surroundings so as not to accidently run aground on a coral reef. People can also offer their time to charitable organizations whose purpose is to raise awareness of the problems facing coral reefs. Education of the public about the importance of coral reefs to the world’s food population is another possible way to help maintain the existence of coral reefs.
There is a way to possibly restore damaged coral reefs; it is a process known as Coral agriculture (Horozowski). Coral agriculture enables a coral reef to skip the process of early development in order to move on to the next phase of growth. The intention of skipping the early growth stage is to eliminate the chances that the coral reefs will die during this early development stage. Coral agriculture allows coral seeds to be grown outside of the reef at nurseries. The local farmers then plant the seeds on the reef once the seeds reach maturity (Horozowski). Sometimes substrate is supplied to allow the coral reefs to develop and grow. This is all part of an effort to develop new coral reefs.
Coral reefs are of paramount importance to the ecosystem. Humans benefit substantially from the food produced by the coral reefs. Additionally, coral reefs protect the world’s coastlines by providing a barrier to raging waters during a storm. Pollution and overfishing of the coral reefs has endangered their existence. It is imperative that people understand the importance of coral reefs, and education is the first step towards this initiative.
Darwin, Charles. “Introduction to Coral Reefs.” n.d. The complete Works of Charles Darwin Online. 3 February 2012 <http://darwin-online.org.uk/EditorialIntroductions/Chancellor_CoralReefs.html>.
Horozowski, Y.B. “Engineering of coral reef larval supply through transplantation of nursery-farmed gravid colonies.” Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology (2011): 162-166.
Kleypas, J.A., et all. “Impacts of Ocean Acidification on Coral Reefs and Other Marine Calcifiers: A guide for future research.” Electronic. 2006.
Reef Relief. Tips for Boaters and Fishermen. 2011. 3 February 2012 <http://reefrelief.org/act/tips/tips-for-boaters-and-fishermen/>.
UNEP. “Coral Reef Unit.” 11 September 2001. United Nations Environment Programme. 3 February 2012 <http://coral.unep.ch/atlaspr.htm>.
US Department of Commerce. National Marine Protected Areas Center. n.d. 3 February 2012 <http://www.mpa.gov/>.