Saving the Coral Reefs

Illustration by Pallavi Singh

In places like Rochester, N.Y., coral reefs might not be a present issue in most people’s minds. But realizing the benefits that coral reefs bring to everyone, not just those cruising the Bahamas, is vital to keeping them alive.

It’s time to take an in-depth look at the importance that coral reefs have all over the world, how they are being affected and what we can do, big or small, to try and save them. Even if coral doesn’t affect us directly, it does indirectly.

Importance of Coral Reefs

Coral reefs have many important roles that they play, whether it is locally in communities, or globally in an economic sense.

Ariana Huffmyer, a postdoctoral researcher with the University of Rhode Island, gave some insight into why coral reefs are so important in a local sense.

“Coral reefs are a buffer protecting its [island] coastal regions and protecting those communities,” Huffmyer said.

This especially affects low standing islands like the Marshall Islands which don’t have a lot of high protection from storms and high tides. Coral reefs are the barriers that islands need, especially with the rise in storms and harsher weather due to climate change.

“Coral reefs are a source of tourism, jobs, food and therefore money from harvesting fish and organisms,” Huffmyer explained.

Coral reefs can be a big economic factor for a lot of places in the U.S., as well as in different countries.

Impacts on Coral Reefs

There are a lot of different challenges that coral reefs face, and one of the biggest is climate change. There are two different effects that happen to coral during climate change, which are bleaching and the increase in water acidity.

Tom Weber, an assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science at the University of Rochester, explained these two effects.

“As the sea water takes up CO2, it becomes acidic, and the more acidic it gets, the harder it is to build up a calcium carbonate shell,” Weber explained.

Coral constantly lose their shell, and when they lose it they have to build it back. Once the water starts to get more acidic because of CO2, it's harder for the coral to build their shell, and when they can’t build it anymore, they die. By the year 2050 the water might be too acidic for coral to survive, but coral bleaching is a much more time sensitive process.

“A change in water temperature upsets the polyps enough that it no longer wants to support algae,” Weber said.

"A change in water temperature upsets the polyps enough that it no longer wants to support algae."

Coral contain polyps that allow the photosynthesis process to occur. When water temperature rises, the algae disappears and this is when the bleaching in the coral occurs, which means they start starving, and in some cases the coral will die.

If water temperature cools down enough, the algae can return to the coral and the process of photosynthesis can start again. This process can take up to months or even years, but the algae needs to return quickly in order to salvage the coral.

Another impact that is affecting coral reefs is overfishing. Overfishing harms coral more indirectly because it affects the ecosystem that the coral live in.

Liam Megraw, a fifth year Environmental Science major had some insight on the effects of overfishing.

“What can happen is if you have predator fish that are no longer there, coral predators can grow in abundance, and if there are fewer grazers for the algae, algae will grow in abundance and basically choke out coral,” Megraw explained.

Overfishing can hurt the ecosystem the coral live in, which can create an overabundance of harmful algae that the coral can’t fight off.

“Most recently the Great Barrier Reef has gone through some very severe bleaching events in the last few years and they’ve seen extensive mortality in areas, they’ve seen reproduction drop in a lot of areas,” Huffmyer stated.

Even places in the Caribbean, Hawaii and other regions around the world are experiencing a decline in their coral reefs.

Education and Change

Education and awareness of what’s going on in the world is the first step. The next step is taking action in any way possible.

Netflix released a documentary in 2017 called "Chasing Coral," which is a great resource to check out to learn more about what is happening to this species. The documentary takes a firsthand look at what researchers around the world are seeing when it comes to disappearing coral reefs.

“A lot of aquariums are now directing some of their funding to research programs,” Huffmyer stated.

An example of an aquarium that is directing more funding to research is the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. They are working with researchers in the Bahamas to search for ways to save coral reefs.

Being able to spread the word about these places that are being affected by the dying coral population is another step that we can take. A step that the government can take is joining back into the Paris Agreement and working with other leaders in other countries and making new policies.

There are even organizations and nonprofits that individuals can look into if they want to make an impact.

“A very good nonprofit that deals with marine issues in general is called They are a nonprofit that focuses on education and the effect in policy decisions,” Weber said.

The disappearance of coral reefs is hurting the communities around them, and in most cases these communities are not the ones responsible, but still get hurt the most.

"Climate change impacts, including impacts on reefs in coastal and island locations, disproportionately affect low income communities that are the least responsible for causing climate change through emissions," Huffmyer said. "Therefore, mitigating the impacts of climate change are closely and directly tied to addressing inequities in our society."

In the grand scheme of things, the biggest issue when it comes to coral is fixing climate change.

“If we don't solve climate change, nothing else that we do matters because the climate stress will become so severe that even if we bred resilient corals or outplant nursery corals there is still a limit that they can handle,” Huffmyer stated.

"If we don't solve climate change, nothing else that we do matters ... "