In honor of Coral Reef Awareness Week, we’d like to highlight the importance of coral reefs as well as how AZA-accredited aquariums, zoos, and research centers across the globe are working to protect them.
Coral is a living animal found in a wide array of stunning colors, diverse textures, and unique shapes which has a symbiotic relationship with algae, fish, and other aquatic organisms. Corals are often found in communities known as coral reefs, which are one of the most unique and diverse ecosystems on the planet.
Thousands of coral species exist around the world and build entire ocean landscapes. Many of the world’s coral species are endangered due to several environmental threats to their wellbeing. Many AZA-accredited facilities are active in endangered species conservation, including conservation for coral. Read more about AZA’s efforts below.
Coral, which is an AZA SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction species program, focuses on Atlantic Acropora coral, one of the many endangered kinds of coral. Two species of Atlantic Acropora, staghorn (A. cervicornis) and elkhorn (A. palmata), are instrumental in building coral reef communities in the tropical western Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean. During the 1970s and 1980s, populations of Acropora declined as much as 97% across the Caribbean and Florida, greatly reducing opportunities for the species to reproduce.
Coral reefs are unique underwater ecosystems built by thousands, sometimes millions, of diverse corals. They are often found in shallow, clear waters where enough sunlight filters through to promote the growth of algae and other symbiotic growth. These places are usually offshore countries or islands that are close to the equator. They have been formed over millions of years, as a network of corals attached to the calcium carbonate deposits of their ancestors (the skeletons of past corals). When coral reef communities are healthy, the corals that build them, can spawn or fragment off and reattach to the ancient reef, creating larger coral reefs over time. This massive network of landscapes provides a home to more than 25% of the ocean’s life.
Coral reefs are both beautiful and biologically important to aquatic environments. From serving as habitats for millions of fish and algae to preventing erosion and minimizing the damage sustained from tropical storms, coral reefs are vital to marine life and life on land.
When you envision coral reefs, you may picture beautiful corals in a variety of shapes, sizes, and stunning colors, but did you know that coral reefs are biologically one of the most important ecosystems in the world? Coral reefs serve as the home, cafeteria, gathering place, and nursery for various organisms and sea creatures. Thousands of species of fish, algae, and coral comprise each coral reef. In fact, the biodiversity of coral reefs is so great that they are one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, and by far the most diverse of shallow marine ecosystems.
In addition to being one of nature’s most beautiful contributions to our oceans, coral reefs also protect both the ocean and the shoreline from erosion caused by the unrelenting force of ocean waves. Due to their ability to serve as a buffer between the coast and the ocean, coral reefs can hinder the impact of forceful storms and waves, serving as nature’s way of protecting human life and coastal communities.
The beauty of coral reefs attracts millions of scuba divers, snorkelers, beach lovers, and swimmers in coastal areas around the world each year. Without coral reefs, some communities around the world would lose significant portions of their economic diversity and ability to sustain important community offerings and services.
Coral reefs are beneficial on both a global and national scale. Coral reefs are the primary location for a significant portion of fish and other food sources used for feeding millions of people in coastal and island communities around the world. Wildlife habitats and fisheries also depend on the use of coral reefs for the breeding and spawning of fish used to replenish thousands of lakes, rivers, and streams around the United States and throughout the world.
Many coral species are considered endangered, but efforts are being made to prevent the further destruction of coral and coral reefs through environmental efforts, research and recovery programs, and more. Coral reefs comprise less than 2% of the ocean despite their importance and contribution to marine life, coral reefs are dying for several reasons. These are the main threats to their safety:
Unsustainable fishing practices are one of the most common reasons for the death of coral reefs. Coral reefs and other marine ecosystems depend on a variety of different types of fish to promote their health. Overfishing and nonselective fishing methods like nets and traps do not allow fish populations to recover.
Overfishing can also remove too many large fish that coral reefs and other organisms depend on. Simply put, coral reef communities cannot function optimally without a wide variety of fish, algae, and other organisms that keep the ecosystem running smoothly. As a result, overfishing and the death of coral reefs both play a significant role in the overall health of our marine ecosystems.
You may have heard the trouble straws can cause for turtles, sea gulls, and other marine animals, but did you know that pollution can have just as much of an impact on the ocean floor as on the surface of the water? From microbeads found in cosmetics and beauty products to plastic waste dumped in the ocean or blown into the water, and even ingredients found in sunscreen, several pollutants have led to the death of coral reef systems around the world.
While coral reef systems can withstand nature’s storms, they were not intended to survive the damage caused by plastics and other hard materials which do not dissolve over time. These pollutants can harm coral and fish in the area, which can cause coral death and many other long-term effects that are currently being studied.
Untreated sewage can be dangerous for humans, and as you may expect, it isn’t good for coral reefs either. In developing countries where sewage is not treated properly, and in the developed countries where sewage fails to be treated properly despite the means to do so, coral reefs can suffer significant damage from the waste left behind as a result of stormwater run-off or human negligence.
Because coral reefs are composed of organisms which depend on the proper distribution of nutrients and sunlight, any substance which can interfere with the delicate balance of algae and other organisms can have an impact on the health of corals and coral reef systems.
Due to extreme heat stress, coral reefs are dying in droves. Research indicates more than half of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was bleached by 2016, while some say as much as 95% of the iconic structure is decaying, due to a number of factors, including global warming, environmental pollution from the dredging of the seafloor for the creation of a coal port, and unsustainable fishing methods.
Corals live symbiotically with tiny algae in their tissues. These algae provide necessary nutrients for coral growth and health. When temperatures rise or fall to extreme numbers, the coral can lose its algae, causing it to appear white. At this point, the living animal of the coral is still alive, but if these extreme conditions persist, the algae will not come back, and the coral is likely to die because of lack of nutrients. Corals can bleach from extreme cold events, but as sea surface temperatures are rising, most bleaching events occur today because of extreme heat events.
Because coral reefs are comprised of many different species of coral that foster a community of symbiotic growth, diseases that impact entire colonies can be devastating for coral reef ecosystems. For example, the Florida Reef Tract is experiencing an unprecedented disease outbreak affecting more than 25 of the 45 reef-building, stony coral species found on the Reef Tract. The Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD) has resulted in 50%-90% reduction in abundance of coral species susceptible to the disease.
With mortality rates as high as 100% in corals affected by the disease, SCTLD is a significant threat to the Florida Reef Tract community. The good news is that various organizations around the world, including accredited facilities of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, NOAA Fisheries, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the National Parks Service, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, and more are working together to implement programs that will provide a better understanding of the disease, safeguard affected corals species and their genetic profiles, and produce offspring that will eventually be transplanted back to the reef when it is again able to sustain these species once more.
READ MORE: Florida Reef Tract Rescue Project
What is AZA doing? AZA SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction Coral program and its partners aim to increase the abundance of coral through research, reef restoration, and propagation of corals in land-based and in situ coral nurseries. In 2017, AZA-accredited facilities reported spending over $1.1 million to protect elkhorn coral, a species listed under the Endangered Species Act. In addition, the AZA Florida Reef Tract Rescue Project (AZA-FRTRP) is creating land-based nurseries to home corals removed from the Florida Reef Tract so that further study on the corals, the disease, coral propagation and the coral relocation back to the reef and reef restoration can be possible.
While scientists and researchers around the globe work to find solutions for preventing coral reef bleaching and decay, what can the average person do to help? There’s plenty you can do! Here’s how you can help us keep coral reef systems safe from decay and destruction.
If you’re passionate about protecting wildlife and ecosystems for future generations to come, help us spread the word about coral reef awareness using the hashtag #CoralReefAwareness and #SavingSpecies on social media. You can also find ways to promote Coral Reef Awareness Week at school, work, or at home with educational activities, lessons on biodiversity, and more.
Microbeads and harmful chemicals in sunscreen, like oxybenzone, that end up in the ocean can be fatal to marine life, including coral reefs. Choose environmentally-friendly products to help minimize the damage caused by plastics and other environmental dangers.
Coral reefs are some of nature’s most beautiful masterpieces. If you have the chance to get up close and personal with coral reefs on a deep sea dive or while snorkeling near the beach, take care not to damage the coral by touching them or interfering with the community. Ideally, don’t get close enough to interfere with the interactions between a coral reef and fish and other organisms.
The best way to know what’s happening around the world regarding coral reef conservation and animal conservation is to follow the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and other leading conservation groups. Follow us on social and stay tuned to learn more about the advances researchers are making in conservation efforts and learning more about how you can help keep the world vibrant and beautiful.
AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums making a difference for coral conservation. Follow your local zoo or aquarium to learn more about their coral projects and how you can help. To find a zoo or aquarium near you, visit https://www.aza.org/find-a-zoo-or-aquarium.
Photo Credit: Erinn Muller, Mote Marine Laboratory