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08 • 25 • 2021

Coral Reefs—The Crown Jewels of Our Ocean

By Stefanie Sekich-Quinn

Coral reefs are undoubtedly the ‘Crown Jewels’ of the ocean.  Not only are coral reefs stunningly beautiful, but they also provide many ecological, cultural, and economic benefits to billions of people around the globe. 

While coral reefs cover less than 1% of the ocean floor, they provide habitat for 25% of marine species. Over 4,000 different species of fish rely on coral reefs. In addition, coral reefs also act as a filtration system helping maintain healthy water quality. From an ecological standpoint, the benefits of coral reefs cannot be overstated.  

Additionally, these amazing ecosystems also help buffer our shorelines from storms, extreme weather, and sea level rise.  In fact, coral reefs protect beaches from 97 percent of the energy from waves, storms, and floods—in turn, helping to protect coastal communities from property damage and accelerated coastal erosion. For example, a recent study found reefs provide $1.8 billion in protection annually for Puerto Rico, Hawaii and other U.S. shorelines.

From an economic standpoint, coral reefs are a powerhouse. In the U.S., coral reefs contribute roughly $3.4 billion each year to our economy—including fisheries, tourism, and coastal protection.  These unique ecosystems provide about one-quarter of the total fish catch, providing food to an estimated one billion people in Asia alone. 

Unfortunately, coral reefs are at the mercy of pollution, coastal development, and climate change.  Because the ocean has absorbed 90% of excess heat trapped in the atmosphere due to global warming, coral reefs are being gravely impacted.  For example, ocean surface temperatures have increased 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit between 1880 to 2018.  As the ocean warms, coral bleaching becomes more common. Coral bleaching is when the symbiotic algae that live within coral tissues expel themselves, turning the coral white and removing the coral's ability to access key nutrients. 

Secondly, coral reefs are impacted by ocean acidification because the ocean has absorbed 30% of CO2 emitted from burning fossil fuels. These high concentrations of CO2 are changing ocean chemistry and causing the ocean to acidify at rapid rates. Ocean acidification impacts how corals absorb calcium carbonate, an essential element needed to build and maintain coral skeletons.   

Scientists say we have little time to turn around the damage to our corals.  In fact, some scientists predict that if we do not act to curb global warming and climate change, 90% of the world’s reef with die by 2050. In fact, Great Barrier Reef has lost half of its corals since 1995. From 2014 to 2017, a global bleaching event brought bleaching-level heat stress to more than 75 percent of global reefs. This bleaching event was the longest, most widespread, and most destructive on record.

While the impacts to coral reefs are alarming, we can help save our corals by demanding Congress take bold action.  Our decisionmakers must act fast to drastically reduce greenhouse gases and help coastal communities adapt to climate change impacts. Join Surfrider in urging your Congressional representatives to act fast and boldly on the climate crisis—our coral reefs are counting on you.