Why should we take care of coral reefs? As a lover of marine life, I find that question strange. To me, it is not very different from asking, “Why should we care about babies?”
My perspective, however, is a peculiar and privileged one. I have seen coral reefs up close and find them mesmerizing, and I think their aesthetic beauty and the diversity of life they contain has inherent value worth preserving for its own sake.
I understand that not everyone can share this evaluation for many reasons. Even then, I think everyone should still care about coral reefs, if at least for the most selfish of reasons.
Before we look at the reasons why we should care about coral reefs, it helps to review some basic science.
Coral reefs are like the forests of the sea. They are teeming with different kinds of living things and have structures that support complex interrelationships between different living things. Unlike trees, however, corals are not plants. Instead, corals are animals related to jellyfish and sea anemone.
Many species of corals have the amazing ability of building complex structures that provide shelter and protection of other living things. It takes a long time for coral reefs to grow, because individual corals grow slowly. In fact, most corals grow by less than an inch (2.5 cm) per year.
Despite the slow pace of reef-building, corals have had eons to construct their colorful underwater cities. Many islands, such as the atolls of the South Pacific, exist thanks to the activity of corals over thousands of years. The biggest coral reef on Earth, the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia, can be seen from space!
Despite the impressive size of some coral reefs, they only cover less than 1 percent of the vast ocean floor. This makes it even more impressive that coral reefs are home to probably around one quarter of all marine species!
Being home to a large number of fish and other marine species, coral reefs have incalculable value to people who depend on the sea as a source of food.
The Philippine seas are actually part of one of the most important marine areas on Earth—the Coral Triangle, home to more coral species than anywhere else on Earth. This area is also home to six of the seven species of sea turtles and to over 2000 species of fish, including tuna.
According to the World Wildlife Foundation, over 120 million people live in the area within the Coral Triangle and rely on its reefs for food and income.
Coral reefs also serve as protection from storms waves and strong currents. According to the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, coastlines protected by reefs are also “more stable, in terms of erosion, and are also a source of sand in natural beach replenishment.”
Coral reefs also provides jobs based on tourism, employing thousands of people in areas where they are healthy enough to attract visitors from far away.
Coral reefs even provide medicines! By studying the vast biochemical repertoire of the living things in coral reefs, scientists discover new medicines that help sick people living hundreds of kilometers away from the nearest shoreline.
The total value of coral reefs to people has been estimated at 172 billion dollars (8.8 trillion pesos) each year.
Unfortunately, coral reefs are under many kinds of threats, ranging from direct physical damage (such as from overharvesting or being hit by ships) to stress from invasive species.
However, the worst threat to coral reefs is probably no other than global warming. Warm waters cause corals to lose the microscoping algae that produce the food corals need. As the globe warms, the ocean warms the fastest.
Another threat related to global warming is ocean acidification, which means that seawater is becoming more acidic. This happens when the excess carbon dioxide that causes global warming becomes absorbed by the ocean. The more acidic seawater makes it more difficult for corals to build their hard skeleton.
According to a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, if we fail to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, more than 99 percent of corals will be in grave danger.
Given how much we depend on them, the collapse of the world’s coral reefs is too tragic for comparison. However, science warns us that it will happen if we fail to solve the climate crisis.
Given how valuable coral reefs are to us, even to those of us who think we do not depend greatly on the bounty of the sea, it is time we start caring about coral reefs. Fortunately preserving the richness of life underwater requires us to simply preserve life above water. In the face of global warming, saving the seas means saving ourselves.