CORAL and THE FRAGILITY OF LIFE
Updated: Aug 31, 2020
“It’s clear to anyone who puts their head below the waves that the fate of the world’s coral reefs is hanging in the balance,” said UNEP chief Erik Solheim. “At the moment these undersea explosions of colour and life face an extremely bleak future.”
Let’s put our heads below the waves for just a moment.
Coral reefs are extremely sensitive to changes in the environment. Coral polyps, the organisms that colonize and build these reef structures, can be found in warm tropical seas or in the cold depths of the ocean. Corals consist of a photosynthetic algae (zooxanthellae) that live in their tissues. This mutualism is beneficial to both organisms --- the coral obtains sugars from the photosynthesizing algae, while the algae find protection within the coral. A slight change in temperature can cause the coral to expel the algae, which leads to rapid whitening or bleaching of the coral. We refer to these processes as “bleaching events.” Most cases are in response to a rise in temperature, although cooler temperatures may have the same effect.
Bleaching is a stress response. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the coral will die, but it does increase the chance of coral death and causes other physiological changes.
Bleaching events are occurring more frequently. And they are happening on a global scale. A recent bombshell report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that, even if we manage to stabilize global surface temperatures to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, 70 to 90 per cent of coral reefs will be lost by the middle of this century.Australia’s Great Barrier Reef alone lost around 50% of its coral between 2016 and 2017. In 2020, the Great Barrier Reef experienced its largest bleaching event to date.
One can almost imagine ghostly fish weaving in and out of the pale coral.
Temperature changes are not the only drivers of these bleaching events. Coral reefs face a multitude of threats. Overfishing can cause a decline in fish stocks, which in turn causes a reduction in the number of fish that eat algae that grow on the surface of the coral reef. An overgrowth of this kind of algae (think of algae on the back of an old snapping turtle) can essentially suffocate the corals. These changes disrupt the ecosystem and wreak havoc on these coral systems. Overgrowth of algae on the outside of coral reefs can also occur through eutrophication (excess nutrients in the water due to agricultural runoff or naturally through upwelling). Similarly, events like harmful algal blooms can take place in nutrient-rich waters, some of which produce toxic chemicals that can damage coral ecosystems.
Humans cause harm in even more direct ways. People in certain parts of the world practice destructive fishing methods. It’s hard to believe, but some cultures use dynamite or cyanide to catch fish. Cyanide has been used in the Philippines for so long that it’s thought of as “traditional.”
Recreational activities also cause damage. Chemical sunscreens cause significant harm, as can boat anchors and careless swimming or snorkeling.
Commercial activities are also problematic. We are increasingly concerned about coastal development that includes building, dredging (marinas and deep water channels), or dumping (waste materials or the intrusion of freshwater, since freshwater can destroy mangroves, which are the breeding ground for reef fish).
There’s a litany of other stressors:
⁕ Plastics: 8 million tons enter the oceans each year, some is broken down into microplastics that are ingested by coral polyps
⁕ Untreated sewage and waterborne pathogens
⁕ The jewelry trade
⁕ Illegal wildlife and aquarium trade (a multi-million dollar industry): tropical fish are removed from reefs, thus disrupting the eco-system
⁕ Rise in coral disease and increased susceptibility
There’s still another significant threat to coral reefs – a phenomenon known as “ocean acidification,” or OA. Acidification is the result of an ongoing decrease in the pH of the oceans.
Surprisingly, the world’s oceans absorb roughly 30% of the carbon dioxide (CO2) that is released in the atmosphere (some of which is human-driven). As those CO2 levels increase, the amount of CO2 absorbed by the oceans increases, which causes a chemical chain reaction. The process releases more hydrogen ions in the seawater, which has profound negative effects on corals and other shelled organisms.
The combination of these threats is devastating reefs all over the world. There are no natural controls, either, which is especially worrisome.
There are a number of reasons to care about the destruction of the world’s coral reefs.
They are critical to life on Earth. More than half of the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean. Coral reefs are essential for a healthy ocean ecosystem and therefore play a critical role in our continued existence.
Coral reefs are like the rainforest of the sea: they support ocean biodiversity. Some scientists estimate that reefs support as much as 25% of all marine life. The Northwest Hawaiian Island coral reefs, which are part of the Papahānaumokuākea National Marine Monument, support more than 7,000 species of fishes, invertebrates, plants, sea turtles, birds, and marine mammals. In Florida, mangroves provide nursery and breeding grounds for certain fish, who then move to the reefs to live.
They are astonishingly beautiful. They have inherent value, independent of any utility to us. They are the playground for a vast array of amazing creatures. From an ethnocentric perspective, we too love to dive and explore their craggy wildness. These stunning underwater vistas are good for our souls. They also support growing eco-tourism industries in Pacific, coastal, and island countries.
There’s emerging science that points toward possible medicinal value and research knowledge. Coral spawning happens one night each year. These events are possibly tied to the lunar cycle. What other natural events are intertwined with the solar or lunar cycles? We’ve discovered thousands of different types of corals, and we still don’t know much about the value of the toxins they use to deter predators.
Coral reefs form natural breakwaters. Reefs act as natural buffers against waves and storms. According to NOAA, a healthy coral reef can absorb up to 97% of a wave’s energy before it strikes the shore, which reduces damage to both property and shorelines. These barriers are especially important in light of today’s increased hurricane activity and ferocity.
There are some legal protections in place. In the United States, we have a combination of an executive order, federal and state laws, as well as public and private initiatives.
On June 11, 1998, President Clinton signed Executive Order 13089. It drew on the authority granted in the Magnuson-Stevens Act, Clean Water Act, Coastal Zone Management Act, and several others. The Order requires that all federal agencies must identify federal actions that affect US coral reef ecosystems. Federal agencies must adhere to programs to protect and enhance the condition of those systems, and must ensure that any actions that a federal agency funds or authorizes does not degrade the conditions of those ecosystems.
The Order also created the US Coral Reef Task Force (USCRTF). Its duties include research, conservation, mitigation, and restoration of coral reefs.
Some coral species are listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The EPA also uses the Clean Water Act to provide some related regulation or assistance. It provides funding and technical assistance, as well as regulations on point source protections and dredge and fill activities. EPA also works with USCRTF.
There’s protection on the international front, too. The International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI) is a partnership between roughly sixty nations and several non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The United States was one of its eight founding members. The Initiative is not mandatory or binding, but rather it is an informal group that promotes best practices, attempts to raise awareness about the multiple threats to reefs, and issues calls to action.
Certain corals are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Black corals (Antipatharia) were listed in Appendix II of CITES in 1981. In 1985, due to growing concern about the effects of commercial trade on coral ecosystems, the CITES parties listed all stony corals, blue corals (Helioporidae), organ pipe corals (Tubiporidae), and fire corals (Milleporidae) in Appendix II. Lace corals (Stylasteridae) were later added to Appendix II and China has listed 4 species of red coral in Appendix III.
The future is not promising. Corals continue to die across the globe after mass bleaching events or as a result of acidification. This very moment, right now, represents a critical juncture in our conservation efforts.
These devastating events are concerning on another level. They highlight the fragility of all life on this planet. When we allow one important component of the ecosystem to die off – whether it’s on land, under the ocean, or in the desert – all other living creatures are vulnerable. Exposed. Endangered. We’re connected in ways that are only now becoming apparent to us.
Which bring us to “us.”
Of all the species living on this planet, one in particular has the technological and problem-solving ability to mitigate some of the factors that drive biodiversity loss: humankind. Humans (alone?) have the ability to understand the moral duty to act and to then act on that duty. Humans can reason, problem solve, measure, innovate, and forecast problems down the road. Humans can choose to act even when its contrary to our self-interest. Humans can – and must – address these global environmental issues. We have to act as if our lives (and the lives of all other living organisms) depend on it. Because they do.
But action starts with a mindset change.
Perhaps we need to start with the view that the natural world is sacred. It’s diverse, awe-inspiring, and vibrant. In its natural state, it’s terrifyingly complex and simultaneously graceful. It has value independent of us, but we are a part of it. It deserves our respect.
Perhaps we need to acknowledge the Creator of the natural world and what that implies. The Bible has much to say about the natural world, but these two Scriptures stand out in light of this post: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (Psalm 19:1). Psalm 104: “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. Here is the sea, great and wide, which teems with creatures innumerable, living things both small and great.” We see God in His works; they attest to His Glory and wisdom. There’s a purpose for their existence. They are sacred.
Perhaps we need to acknowledge the harm that we’ve caused and accept that a shift in our economic foundation is necessary. The science is clear. Humans are causing destruction on a global and unprecedented scale. Certain industries are disproportionately responsible for the wholesale depletion or defilement of our resources. Now is the time to consider less-destructive practices in agriculture, pest-control, fishing, fossil fuel extraction, and … living.
Finally, perhaps we need to register our own fragility … and dependence upon our Maker. We cannot change or solve every world problem. But God has equipped us in ways that matter. We can use our God-given talents to effect change within our sphere of influence. For some, it’s through engineering, writing, teaching, or innovation. For others, it’s through art, science, or animal care. For others, it’s through the use of the legal or political system to force change.
What abilities, gifts, or passions do you possess? How can you put those to work to provoke change and inspire action? We consider it nothing short of a sacred mission.
Let’s not be buffeted about by the currents and storms of life. Rather, let’s confront these looming environmental crises head-on, both above and below the waves.
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