Not Just a Rock: Why You Need Coral Reefs

© CI/photo by Sterling Zumbrunn

Editor's note: This is our fifth blog about our Nature Is Speaking campaign.

At 12 years of age, my life was about to change.

It was my first dive on a coral reef. As I slowly descended onto Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, I was magnetized.

Everywhere I looked, new forms of life revealed themselves in a flurry of activity. Colorful butterfly fish nibbled on the reef. Christmas tree worms retracted as I swam by. A baby whitetip reef shark trailed behind me, curious about my bubbles. I left the water charged with a sense of urgency to share everything I had just seen.

Since then, I have had the privilege of exploring many of the world’s most vibrant reefs — places buzzing in a riot of life. Sadly, I have also visited far too many reefs that are a mere shadow of what they once were.

Threatened by overfishing and destructive fishing methods, coastal development, pollution and climate change, 19% of the world’s coral reefs are already gone. Scientists consider approximately 75 percent of the remaining reefs to be threatened, a number that is projected to increase to 90 percent by 2050 if negative impacts continue. At that rate, by the time my grandchildren are old enough to dive, there may not be a healthy reef left for them to experience.

Like other ecosystems, coral reefs don’t have a voice like you or me. In “Coral Reef,” the newest edition of the Nature Is Speaking film series, Ian Somerhalder gives the reef a human voice.

“Some people think I am just a rock, when in fact I am the largest living thing on this planet.”

The message may seem simple, but for many it isn’t.

Six years ago, I attended the launch of the Kalabia Marine Conservation Education Program, a floating classroom that CI and our partners created in the Bird’s Head Seascape in eastern Indonesia. This area is home to the greatest coral diversity on the planet.

At the launch ceremony, students demonstrated one of the educational activities regularly conducted during the program. Before our eyes, the students transformed into a coral colony.

Protected within the skeleton of the colony (a sheet), each coral animal, (known as a coral polyp), played by the gloved hand of a student, reached out to gather floating plankton (peanuts provided by the educators). As each polyp gathered food, it shared the nutrients with the other coral polyps living with it in the colony (i.e., the other students).

Remarkably, when the students were finished, a high-ranking government official announced that until that moment he had never known coral was alive. He grew up on a small island surrounded by reef, but he thought of coral simply as a rock that was used to line the streets.

Unfortunately, he is not alone in this misperception. Most people don’t get to experience the vitality and the beauty of coral, and so it is not surprising that far too many overlook the tremendous gifts that coral provides us.

Coral supports a quarter of all marine life. It is the protein factory for the world; many of the fish that provide the main protein source for more than 1 billion people spent at least part of their lives in the reefs. It is our fortress against tsunamis, storms and coastal surges, a latticed barricade buffering 150,000 kilometers (more than 93,000 miles) of shoreline and the 275 million people who live there. It is the source of medicines now being tested for relieving pain and for treating cancer, HIV and other diseases. It drives economies, generating livelihoods from tourism and fisheries. It inspires countless cultures and gives us a sense of place.

Coral doesn’t need people. It has evolved and grown for a quarter of a billion years. It will survive us and eventually take on new forms. But we won’t see those forms in our lifetimes.

If our grandchildren (or our children for that matter) have any chance of experiencing the electric power of a healthy reef or benefiting from the services it provides, we need to listen to the coral. We need to stop killing it. And we need to do it now.

CI works directly with communities, governments and businesses to reduce threats on many of the world’s most expansive and diverse coral reefs, including those across the Coral Triangle and the Pacific Oceanscape.

Reversing the trends in coral decline will require all of us however. Whether it’s with your voice, your ideas or your wallet, you can support leaders, companies and communities — and CI — to:

Reduce atmospheric CO2 to 350 parts per million (ppm) to prevent the most severe impacts to reefs: rising temperatures and ocean acidification. We are currently over 400 ppm and rising.

  1. End the use of bombs and poison on reefs, destructive fishing practices that are among the most damaging local threats to coral.
  2. Establish marine protected areas (MPAs), which when well-designed and well-managed are an essential tool for reducing threats to coral reefs.
  3. Reduce unsustainable fishing, which can lead to widespread shifts in ecosystem dynamics, leaving coral highly vulnerable to other threats.
  4. Manage coastal development and pollution to reduce sediment runoff and pollution that smother the reef.

Above all else though, I hope you take the opportunity to learn more about coral reefs, perhaps even visit one. Explore its magic. Marvel at its aliveness. Be grateful for the gifts it provides. And then help share what it has to say.

Laure Katz is the director of CI’s seascapes program. To continue the conversation or to learn more about what you can do to help, check out our Nature Is Speaking website or connect with Laure on Twitter. In addition, every time you use the hashtag #NatureIsSpeaking on social media platforms, HP will donate $1 to CI (up to $1 million); learn more.