Written by Evan Quinter
I am a firm believer that humanity is bound to the sea. Through natural global cycles, coastal resources, or beachside aesthetics, we are linked to the ocean. Our bond comes with a shared responsibility for the degradation of our seas. The health of the marine ecosystem is shaped by our actions, so any marine issues falls upon our shoulders. In response, most of our conservation efforts occur near or on the coast. This is true for most environmental programs; the greatest protection comes from the most affected groups. Why then, do we not discuss coral reef conservation in landlocked areas? Coral reefs impact everyone, regardless of our coastal vicinity, and reef advocacy from all communities can create major strides in protecting coral reefs.
How do we benefit from coral reefs?
Coral reefs provide many benefits for almost 100 million coastal residents, such as storm protection, economic opportunities, and recreational activities. They also serve inland communities as a popular tourist destination contributing US$36 Billion to the global tourism industry per year (Spalding et al., 2017). Commercial and recreational reef fisheries generate a combined $200 million in the US, which provides nutritional food for both coastal and inland communities (NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service). Moreover, modern advances in medicine use chemicals found in corals and other reef organisms (Scripps Institute of Oceanography). Coral reefs service everyone, no matter where you live.
How do we impact coral reefs?
And no matter where you live, you directly or indirectly affect the ocean. The reef fisheries industry provides jobs and food for coastal residents, however, destructive practices using cyanide, dynamite, and trawling leave irreparable damage on coral ecosystems (WWF). The recovery time for reefs stripped by coral mining can last more than 20 years, and the home aquarium trade extracts millions of fish out of their native reefs and into the US (Caras and Pasternak, 2009; Rhyne, 2012). Growing demands from inland communities for these resources will increase the use of unsafe harvesting practices and their resulting consequences on coral reefs.
Our actions inland can also physically trickle down to the sea. Nutrient runoff from fertilizers and sewage coincides with eutrophication (an algae bloom caused by high nutrient levels which leads to low oxygen levels), stony coral disease outbreaks, and even bleaching events (Lapointe et al., 2019). As all freshwater sources eventually lead to the ocean, pollution from inland communities can devastating situations for reefs.
Pollution comes in many forms, so recycling your plastic waste (and yes, your straws) can save more than sea turtles. Plastic waste is often linked to surface pollution, but they can also be found on coral reefs. A four-year study based on reefs in four countries – Australia, Thailand, Indonesia, and Myanmar – found that the likelihood of disease outbreaks for reefs containing plastic skyrocketed from 4% to a staggering 89% (Lamb et al., 2018). The annual 0.44 million metric tons of US plastic waste can lead to severe challenges for reef ecosystems (Jambeck et al., 2015).
Perhaps our strongest impact on coral reefs is the one that impacts all environments, greenhouse gas emissions. As the temperature and acidity levels in the ocean continue to rise, the health of the entire reef system is jeopardized from growing coral bleaching events (coral losing their coral from expelling their symbiotic algae) and reduced calcification rates (Anthony et al., 2008). The consequences of climate change will continue to exponentially snowball into the depletion of reef resources that coastal and landlocked communities depend upon. Coral reef advocacy is not just a coastal duty, we all have a duty to protect our reefs.
How can we protect coral reefs?
But good news everyone, we can be reef advocates without living nearby! There are plenty of ways to protect our oceans, starting with individual actions. First, you can choose sustainably caught seafood, and the Seafood Watch app is a great resource for checking on the best fish species for consumption (Seafood Watch). If you’re an aquarist that can’t live without a reef companion, make sure you purchase from pet/aquarium stores that practice proper and sustainable extraction practices. Minimizing your personal plastic usage and advocating for societal shifts, through policy change and economic incentives, can diminish our overall dependency on plastic products.
And just like any modern ecological problem, reducing your carbon footprint can always help the environment. If you’d like to learn more on how to lessen your personal greenhouse emissions, the New York Times created a great guide that explains the many ways we can all live more responsibly (Livia Albeck-Ripka, 2017).
But the best way to support coral reefs from far away is through education. Environmental education programs often focus on local natural issues, which is pertinent and valuable work. However, an exclusion of marine education may leave residents unaware of their impacts on reef ecosystems. It’s difficult to rally others behind a cause not directly in their surroundings, which is why it might help to bring the ocean to them! Visits to aquariums and fisheries, even freshwater, can remind us why marine life is so vital to uphold.
Educational materials, like documentaries or online presentations, are also wonderful tools that capture the wonder and current state of coral reefs. Following these films with discussions is a great way to inform others about the natural world outside their own backyard. These conversations can happen anywhere, from the classroom to the bar! Personally, I suggest Blue Planet and Chasing Coral as two documentaries to inspire others for ocean advocacy, but there are plenty of resources that can fit your event needs.
The responsibility to care for our oceans does not fall solely on the shoulders of coastal communities, because we all impact the marine environment. Let us all, whether you live on the beach, in the plains, or up in the mountains, educate each other about reef environmental issues and become coral reef stewards.
Anthony et al., 2008: https://www.pnas.org/content/105/45/17442.short
Caras and Pasternak, 2009: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0964569109000982
J.B. Lamb et al., 2018: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29371469
J.R. Jambeck, et al. 2015: https://science.sciencemag.org/content/347/6223/768
Lapointe et al., 2019: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00227-019-3538-9
Livia Albeck-Ripka, 2017: https://www.nytimes.com/guides/year-of-living-better/how-to-reduce-your-carbon-footprint
NOAA National Marie Fisheries Service: https://floridakeys.noaa.gov/corals/economy.html
Scripps Institution of Oceanography: https://scripps.ucsd.edu/projects/coralreefsystems/about-coral-reefs/value-of-corals/
Seafood Watch: https://www.seafoodwatch.org/ Spalding et al., 2017: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308597X17300635