Improving Coral Reef Conditions While Continuing To Utilize Them

*This blog post is a college project by Jainy Teuchtler that we’ve gotten permission to post. If you’re at all interested in coral reefs and how we use them, it makes for a great read! Enjoy :)

Coral reefs such as the one shown above provide underwater ecosystems for a wide variety of marine life. (Credit: National Geographic)

Researchers at the Smithsonian Institution estimate that by 2085, temperature changes will cause oceans to become so acidic that corals will begin to dissolve. Beyond their research, changes in temperature aren’t the only problems that coral reefs face. Overfishing, climate change, and pollution are all factors that have led to a decline in coral populations. When corals die, it becomes harder for the reefs to sustain all of the organisms in the ecosystem, which affects the ecosystem and fisheries.

ENVIRONMENTAL AND ECONOMIC IMPORTANCE

Coral reefs absorb carbon, which regulates carbon levels in the ocean, creating a safe environment for marine life. According to the Smithsonian Institution, they provide a value of about 172 billion U.S. dollars each year, by providing food, coastline protection, and jobs through tourism. 

 

Although coral reefs only take up one percent of the ocean, they provide a habitat for over twenty-five percent of all marine life. Based on research from the World Wide Fund for Nature, coral reefs provide fisheries with over 33,000 pounds of seafood per year, making them a source for food and income for about a billion people worldwide.

 

Coral reefs also provide a great deal of medicinal importance. According to researchers at the Coral Guardian, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of coral reefs, different coral species contain unique agents that they use to protect themselves from other species. Scientists are able to extract these chemicals from not only coral, but also the organisms that live in coral reefs, which can then be used to create treatments for a number of different diseases including, leukemia, HIV, and Alzheimer's. For example, a product called Eleutherobin, which naturally comes from a type of coral, has been used in the prevention of breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

 

SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH

In a scientific study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, done by researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the researchers tested various coral reef management techniques to discover which is more beneficial for both the reef and the community.

 

Using a virtual model of a coral reef ecosystem that reflected the changes in the environment and the multiple problems faced by coral, researchers were able to test six separate management techniques that could be used to preserve coral while maintaining its economic use. The objective of the study was to help natural resources managers decide which method they could implement to achieve their desired outcome within their industry (i.e fisheries, tourism, etc).

 

By using the virtual software Ecopath, researchers were able to create accurate simulations of coral reef ecosystems. The model took into account an estimation of the number and types of organisms living there as well as the pressures faced by the ecosystems, including fishing, visitations, and land-based pollutants. Because the model showed the effects of the scenario for a 15 year period, it also took into account anticipated coral bleaching events, which are when corals release algae that’s stored within them, making them lose their color. It’s most often caused by an extreme rise in ocean temperature due to climate change.

 

Besides researchers using the program to show the effects of “Current Management”, they also tested six new management techniques, including, Only Line Fishing, No Herbivore Fishing, No Take MPA, 90% MSY (maximum sustainable yield), and 50% LBSP. The “No Take MPA” (marine protected area) technique represented a situation which hindered the removal of all natural resources. “90% MSY” (maximum sustainable yield) reflected a scenario in which 90% of a fish population was the maximum amount that could be fished. The “50% LBSP” method showed the effects of a 50% decrease in land‐based‐sources of pollution. Each scenario was tested on the model coral reef to see which would have the most desirable outcome for coastal communities with reefs.


The graph shows the effect of each technique compared to the effects of current management. (Credit: British Ecological Society)

CONCLUSION

As stated by the researchers in their article, they used the experiment to estimate, “how much better or worse the 3 ecosystem services would be in 15 years if an alternative scenario had been implemented now compared to the ‘Current Management’ scenario.”

 

While designed to help natural resources managers decide which method to implement, it ultimately comes down to the importance of not only coral, but also fisheries and dive tourism. For example, the technique that had the most positive result on coral was “No Line Fishing”. Unfortunately that method had the highest decrease in fisheries service, showing that choosing a method will always come with tradeoffs. The “90% MSY” technique, which showed the effects of 90% of fish populations being the maximum that could be removed from the environment, showed a positive change in ecosystem structure, dive tourism, and fisheries compared to the ‘‘Current Management’’ style.

 

The experiment shows that while no single method is significantly better than the rest, all were shown to have a more positive outcome than the “Current Management”. Both fishing regulations in coastal communities with coral reefs and a reduction in land-based pollutants are important for protecting the ecosystems created by coral. The study ultimately shows that even with numerous environmental pressures, coastal management can restore and sustain coral reefs.

 

HOW YOU CAN HELP

While the experiment done by researchers focuses on how environmental managers can preserve reefs, there are small things that anyone can do to protect them, even without living near a reef. One of the most important things that everyone can do each day is disposing of trash properly. Debris that ends up in the ocean can wind up in coral reefs, damaging them and the other organisms that live there. Throw away trash rather than littering, and recycle whenever possible.

When buying products such as sunscreen, opt to choose one that is reef safe, as many can damage the environment. Even small changes can make a difference preserving coral reefs.

 

by: Jainy Teuchtler - @jainy.teuchtler

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