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Dead corals. Credit: Prilfish/Flickr/Creative Commons.

How can we save coral reefs?

By Haydée Rodríguez

When I tell people I live in Costa Rica, they imagine my home on the beach, facing the ocean, waves rolling in from the endless horizon. In reality, I live in a city like any other, one hour from the Pacific coast and three from the Caribbean.

Although my life hasn’t exactly been a tropical vision of paradise, I’ve been in love with the ocean since I was a girl. That love has only deepened the more I came to understand the mysteries of the sea, the services it provides and the marvelous creatures that call it home.

Of all the species that live in the sea, corals are among my favorites. Thanks to my career at AIDA, I have been able to both learn a lot about these tiny animals, and work to identify effective ways to protect them.

Many people don’t know about the incredible connection we have with corals. It’s a connection that exists even for those of us who don’t have the privilege of living by the sea. 

What are corals and what do they do for us? 

Although at first glance they look like large rocks, corals are actually living organisms with an exoskeleton. They have a mutualistic relationship with photosynthetic algae called zooxanthellae, which are responsible for their brilliant coloring. The algae use sunlight to produce food and some of the nutrients that the corals need to survive. In exchange, the corals provide the algae with a protected environment.

A group of corals forms a reef, a highly biodiverse ecosystem, widely known as the jungle of the sea. Coral reefs provide many benefits to humanity:

  • Reefs are spawning grounds for many varieties of fish—the fish you eat are linked, in one way or another, with a coral reef.
  • Reefs are natural shock absorbers that protect coastal communities from storms and hurricanes.
  • Reefs are tourist destinations that generate important national income: one square kilometer of coral reef provides services valued at up to $600,000 a year, according to the United Nations.

The bad news is that these benefits could be lost if we don’t act now to preserve coral reefs. It’s estimated that 60 percent of the world’s coral reefs could disappear by 2030. That would mean that our children may enjoy them for only a brief time, and our grandchildren may know them only from photographs in their science and history books. 

What are the threats and how can we help fight them? 

  • Unsustainable fishing methods, such as trawling, which destroys any coral in its path. Before eating or buying seafood, it’s worth asking how it was fished. Becoming responsible consumers is our right and our obligation. We must demand in restaurants and grocery stores products that have been taken from the sea without harming corals or other species of importance.
  • Inadequate tourism practices harm coral reefs. When exploring the wondrous corals reefs, snorkelers and divers must avoid touching or stepping on them at all costs. We must remember that corals are living creatures, which our weight and the equipment we carry into the sea can harm. When we buy souvenirs like necklaces and crafts, we should reject products that use or incorporate corals. We do not need corals to decorate our homes or bodies, but the ocean needs them to maintain its equilibrium.
  • A recent study found that, when they come into contact with the ocean, sunscreens that contain oxybenzone (a chemical compound) could, even in low concentrations, damage the DNA of corals, deforming them and eventually causing death.  We must avoid using this type of product, and instead use safe sunscreens and clothing to protect us from the sun. Here is a list of sunscreens that are safe for corals.
  • The fertilizers used on crops leech into rivers and eventually reach the ocean, severely harming corals by increasing the production of algae, which in large quantities block the sun and prevent corals from receiving nutrients. We must opt for fruits and vegetables grown organically and demand responsible agriculture.  

Improving legal protection of coral reefs

Another important way of saving coral reefs is by seeking change in our countries. We must urge our governments to improve the laws protecting these sensitive creatures.

At AIDA, we have recently published A Guide to International Regulatory Best Practices for Coral Reef Protection. The document contains ideas to strengthen laws and promote the conservation of coral reefs around the world.

I invite you to share the guide with decision-makers in your country. Or if you prefer, send me ([email protected]) the contact information of people who may be interested in implementing the recommendations contained within, and I will send them the guide directly.

Corals play a more important role in our lives than many of us understand, and their future is in our hands.  We must save coral reefs to ensure that our children and our grandchildren can enjoy the many benefits of these wondrous creatures.

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