Known as the 'rainforests of the sea', corals reefs contain the most diverse ecosystems on Earth and are home to over 25% of all marine species. They are important not only in protecting coastlines from storms, erosion and wave action, but also provide a crucial source of income for millions of people. It's an added bonus that these multicoloured marine cities also offer some fantastic diving and snorkelling opportunities.
Why are coral reefs important?
Coral reefs aren't just important, they're crucial. Healthy coral reef ecosystems provide us with countless natural resources, such as: food and medicines; social, cultural and recreational activities; high species diversity; environmental 'services' such as water purification, creation of soil and pollutant breakdown; and commercial fisheries stocks. More than 500 million people worldwide depend on them for food, coastal defences and livelihoods and what's more, the reefs act as barriers to reduce wave energy by up to 97%, providing crucial safeguarding from threats including tsunamis. The reefs also protect other coastal areas, such as seagrass beds and mangroves, which act as nurseries for marine creatures, while also protecting human populations. The importance of coral reefs has also been highlighted in health-related scientific developments, as extracts from animals and plants found on reefs have been used to develop treatments for cancer, heart disease, arthritis and asthma.
The Most Famous Coral Reefs
The world's most diverse reefs contain over 4,000 reef fish species, 800 hard coral species and 4,000 mollusc species. Perhaps the most well-known reef system is The Coral Triangle. Encompassing the waters of Indonesia, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea, it is the most biologically diverse ecosystem on Earth. Meanwhile, the biggest reefs are The Great Barrier Reef and Meso-American Barrier Reef (off the coast of Belize and Mexico) which make up the two largest barrier reef systems globally,
Economic Importance of Coral Reefs
Due to their contribution to the fishing and tourism industries, coral reefs have an estimated global value of around £6 trillion per year. The Great Barrier Reef alone contributes a whopping $1.5 billion every year to the Australian economy through tourism and fishing and in southeast Asia, reefs provide 70-90% of the fish caught for food. Reefs are the backbone of tropical regions' economies; attracting divers, freedivers, recreational fishermen and white-sand beach lovers! On small islands, more than 90% of new economic development depends on coastal tourism bought about by reefs. They have a unique ability to inspire us to explore and visit the ocean.
Threats to Coral Reefs
Despite the recreational and economic importance of coral reefs, they are under threat from habitat destruction, disease, climate change and pollution. Once damaged, coral reefs are unable to support the creatures that inhabit them and the subsequent communities that rely on them. A vicious cycle ensues when less life on the reefs results in fewer benefits.
How to Support Coral Reefs
Reef tourism - if managed sustainably - can provide an alternative, and hugely beneficial, income for the coastal communities of developing countries. In the long term, humans need to reduce the amount of CO2 that is released into the atmosphere, as this is what's causing increased bleaching and acidification. In the more immediate future, we need to help build 'reef resiliency' by making sure reefs have the capacity to bounce back. Examples of how we can help include ensuring less pollution enters the ocean, making choices to eat sustainable seafood and supporting marine protected areas and conservation sites.