When the U.S. celebrates Thanksgiving tomorrow, we will sit down and give thanks for our family, our friends and the very meal we eat.
Thanks should also be given to all that nature provides for people: clean air, fresh water and food. Every ecosystem on Earth provides one or more of these essential elements for life, including coral reefs — one of the most productive but threatened ecosystems.
Coral reefs are more than “ just rocks,” as my colleague Laure Katz explained last month. They’re immense constructions built by an intricate assembly of living things. They grow slowly but steadily into vibrant oases in the proverbial desert the ocean can sometimes be.
In the more than 100 countries where they’re found, coral reefs provide food, jobs, protection from storms and cultural treasures. A 1997 study of the ecosystem services provided by reefs estimated their annual global value at US$ 375 billion. Adjusted for inflation, that estimate would be over $550 billion today.
Globally, one in six people lives within 100 kilometers (62 miles) of a coral reef — but no matter where you live, here are three reasons to be thankful for coral.
1. Food security
On average each year, a person in a country with coral reefs will consume 29 kilograms (64 pounds) of seafood, a critical source of protein for one in seven people worldwide. Reefs provide a home for valuable fish like grouper and snapper, serve as a gathering point for commercially important open ocean tunas and billfishes, and contribute to lobster and conch production. If we lose reefs, we also lose the vital habitats that support sustainable and well-managed fisheries.
2. Jobs and livelihoods
According to the World Bank, over 350 million jobs depend on the ocean, including fishing. The provision of all this seafood has a direct connection to the economy and livelihoods of nations, both with and without reefs. In countries (especially developing nations) with coral reefs, livelihoods depend on the productivity of healthy reefs for artisanal fishing and tourism. The economic value of coral reef tourism alone has been estimated at US$ 11.5 billion.
3. Protection from the sea
The cumulative power of water is unmatched in nature. It can carve canyons and change coastlines. Coral reefs help to dissipate much of the force from major storm events and tsunamis, protecting shorelines from severe damage. Globally, reefs protect more than 150,000 kilometers (more than 93,000 miles) of coastline, a service valued at more than US$ 10 billion. That protection is critical for low-lying nations, especially small island developing states that are already under threat from rising sea levels.
Despite their value to us, we make life hard for coral reefs. Three-quarters of coral reefs are threatened, and unless we act now, in less than 40 years that figure will rise to 90 percent of all reefs.
More efficient methods of fishing and higher demand put increased pressure on reefs and the fish species directly linked to their health. Destructive fishing — use of explosive or cyanide — destroys reefs indiscriminately. Coral reefs are also threatened by pollution, which reaches them as runoff from human activities on land and sea.
Making matters worse — far worse — for coral reefs are effects of climate change: increasing temperatures, acidification and rising seas. Warming ocean temperatures cause bleaching events, which kill coral. Acidification is caused by increased levels of carbon dioxide (much of it released by burning fossil fuels) absorbed from the atmosphere into the ocean. More acidic oceans have less calcium carbonate, which organisms like corals and shellfishes need to build their skeletons. Reefs can grow to keep up with rising sea levels, but only if they are otherwise healthy.
For all these reasons and more, we must show our thanks and work to mitigate, halt and reverse the detrimental decline of coral reefs, starting with addressing global climate change and other major threats like overfishing.
Fishing on reefs needs to be managed carefully and sustainably, so that the people benefiting directly from fishing do not compromise future productivity for short-lived benefits today. Destructive blast and cyanide fishing must be stopped. In addition, responsible development on land (to mitigate runoff) and better regulation at sea (for marine sources of pollution) can help give reefs a chance.
The impacts climate change has set in motion will likely affect coral reefs for a long time to come — but by alleviating the other pressures on reefs, we can give coral some breathing room while we try to manage one of the biggest challenges of our time.
And in the meantime, let’s give thanks for coral this holiday.
Les Kaufman is a marine conservation fellow with CI and a biology professor with Boston University. To continue the conversation or to learn more about what you can do to help, check out our Nature Is Speaking website, which features Ian Somerhalder as the voice of Coral Reef.