Posted by: terrauniversity | April 5, 2012

Beauty on the Brink?

by Brittany Taylor

Today, more than ever, there is a push to conserve some of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world: coral reefs. Stephanie Wear, a marine scientist with The Nature Conservancy’s Global Marine Team, explains the extent to which these locations have been damaged. “We have already lost about 20 percent of coral reefs worldwide with another 15 percent in critical condition” (Thornton, 2010). Coral reefs are home to more than 25 percent of the oceans’ plants and animals, yet they cover less than one percent of Earth’s surface.

Reef at PPG Aquarium in the Pittsburgh Zoo. Without effective conservation in the wild, aquariums may be the last refuge for many species. (Photo used by permission)

Despite the “small” amount of the world they cover, these ecosystems are essential to human survival. Coral reefs are a source of food and income for about 500 million people, providing the world with a $375 billion market annually (Nature, 2011). Many reef species have been used in medicine to treat cancers and many other conditions. Every day, as these reefs disappear, so does the hope of finding the next “big medical breakthrough” (Wear, 2011). Coral reefs are being destroyed by an assortment of anthropogenic (man-made) sources including overfishing, pollution, and climate change.

Overfishing results in major loss of biological diversity on reefs. The two main causes of overfishing are the need for food and the desire for aquatic pets (“Fishing impacts”, 2011). As the population grows, so does the demand for food. This is putting strain on fisheries, forcing collections to be taken from reefs. The other cause, the aquarium trade, generates billions of dollars annually on a global scale. However, the rate by which species are harvested and methods used to capture live organisms are damaging reefs at an alarming rate.

No matter the distance from the coast, pollution still ends up in the ocean. “Many major coral reef ecosystem stressors originate from land-based sources” (“Pollution”, 2011). Though there many types of pollutants filling oceans, increased sedimentation is considered a primary cause for reef breakdown (“Pollution”, 2011). The increase in sediment particles suspended throughout the water interferes with the natural processes coral reefs need to stay alive and healthy (“Pollution”, 2011).

Climate change is a major challenge facing coral reefs. The rising ocean temperatures has caused large-scale bleaching of corals. Bleaching a disease in which a coral becomes white due to the loss of its zooxanthellae. These zooxanthellae have pigments that give stony coral its color and aid in photosynthesis (NOAA, 2011).

These causes can all be reduced and regulated through awareness and effort. Every year coral reefs go unprotected, millions of dollars worth of revenue and an invaluable amount of biodiversity are lost. Corals have shown amazing resilience through unusual oceanic events, leading many to believe there is still hope in saving these vital resources (Nature, 2011).

For educators: It’s never too early to begin discovering the threats facing coral reefs. and contain a variety of educational resources for grades K-12. College professors can discuss the current methods of coral reef conservation and potential solutions for saving these precious ecosystems.

For students: Be proactive. Even if you don’t live near the ocean, there are plenty of aquatic areas in desperate need of help. Start a school club that helps bring community awareness to local water ecosystems or hold a fundraiser for an organization.


Fishing impacts. (2011, May 13).

Meihua-stock. (Photographer). (2011). Coral reef 1.1. [Web Photo].

The Nature Conservancy. (2011, August 18). Importance of coral reefs.

NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program. (2011, May 11). Major reef-building coral disease.

Pollution. (2011, May 13).

Thornton, P. (2010, August 25). Why coral reefs are so important (expert q&a).

Wear, S. (2011, June 1). How endangered coral reefs could potentially cure cancer [Web log comment].


  1. Great article 🙂 Another cool thing that coral reefs do for us is provide a storm break. In the case of tsunamis or other strong weather patterns, coral reefs can block much of the force, preventing flooding and damage to coastal areas (albeit with harm to the reef).

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