Protecting Our Coral Reefs

One of Earth’s most beautiful biomes, the fascinating and colorful coral reef, is in grave danger due to human activity. Like many other ecosystems, coral reefs are damaged by global climate change, pollution, and direct destruction by humans, but the delicacy of these incredible creatures and their location in the shallow ocean waters just offshore make them especially vulnerable to disturbance by boats, swimmers, and pollution by both toxins and waste materials. Three-quarters of the world’s reefs are currently at risk and that number will rise to 100% by 2050 unless we take immediate action to curb the human activity that endangers our coral reefs.

Large marine debris like packing materials, lobster traps, and lost or abandoned fishing gear washed away from their original locations, can break corals. Netting and other litter discarded from human activity both on land and at sea can become entangled around coral, smothering it. Most people know discarded plastic products can strangle turtles and gulls, but flexible pieces of plastic can also get twisted around coral, increasing their chance of illness to almost 90%. One organism harmful to corals that thrives on organisms weakened by human activity is the corallimorph, an invasive anemone. A team in Hawaii found that removing man-made waste from a coral reef resulted in a drop from 21% to 14% in areas severely infested by these anemones.


Diving and snorkeling are incredible opportunities to get up close and personal with ocean life, but when divers are not properly trained they can cause great harm to the very creatures they enjoy watching. Although corals often look like rocks, standing on them or breaking off pieces of coral harms them, and even simply touching coral can cause damage invisible to the human eye and expose the coral to disease.

Many sunscreens include ingredients that are toxic to ocean ecosystems. As these sunscreens are washed off of human skin and eventually leech into the water, these chemicals can damage the delicate creatures living in the reefs. To reduce damage to coral reefs, one can opt for reef-safe sunscreens that don’t contain any of the chemicals listed on the HEL list or choose clothing that protects skin from the sun like a rash-guard and a wide-brimmed hat.

For those whose favorite vacations are in blue spaces, they should “leave only bubbles and footprints and take only photos.” Responsible tourists can research and choose hotels and restaurants, and especially dive and snorkeling tours that follow coral-safe environmental practices. Although environmentally aware consumers can ensure the businesses they patronize do their part, it is still important for individuals to do their due diligence and read up on environmental best practices for divers and snorkelers to help keep the reefs safe.

Of course, any action that helps to slow the effects of global warming will help corals in the long run. Each person can work to reduce their carbon footprint as well as advocate for emission reduction by the 100 fossil fuel producers that create the vast majority of greenhouse gases related to human activity.

Although protecting coral reefs is a challenge because many of the human activities that threaten reefs are deeply woven into coastal human societies, with concerted effort, each person can help to turn the tide and keep these magnificent ecosystems alive and thriving for generations to come.

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