Conservationists and ocean lovers: June 1 is our chance to step up and celebrate World Reef Day! Coral reefs support more marine species than any other undersea habitat, with more than 25% of the ocean’s fish dependent on healthy coral. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that nearly half a billion people depend on reefs as sources of food and income from the fishing stocks and tourism opportunities reefs provide. Our reefs not only buffer shorelines from the destructive effects of hurricanes, but the tiny animals that give rise to reefs are even offering hope for new drugs to treat cancer and other diseases.
But despite their critical importance, warming waters, pollution, ocean acidification, overfishing and physical destruction are killing coral reefs around the world. A quarter of the world’s coral has disappeared in the last 30 years, and scientists warn that coral reefs could easily be entirely wiped out by the end of the century. Scientists often compare coral reefs to underwater rainforests, but corals are really animals. The soft polyps inside the hard parts of corals are naturally translucent and get their gorgeously vibrant color from algae that live inside them. When corals experience stress from either hot temperatures or pollution, they end their symbiotic relationship with this algae, expelling them and then turning white (known as bleaching). Corals are still alive when they bleach, but they’re at great risk—essentially immunocompromised—and many eventually starve and die, turning them into dark brown graveyards.
Coral bleaching first began to be noticed in the 1980s. The problem got much worse in 2016, when an El Niño weather pattern caused warmer waters in the Pacific Ocean and killed off a third of the corals on the more than 1,500-mile long Great Barrier Reef, jeopardizing one of the most important underwater ecosystems on the planet (not only is it one of the the seven natural wonders of the world, but the Great Barrier Reef is home to the Great Eight). But the thing about coral destruction is that it is essentially a human-made problem, meaning that we also have the ability to create and implement a solution. As Nelson Mandela famously said, “Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that great generation.”
Whether you live near an ocean or not, here are some easy things you can do to help protect our reefs!
1. Organize a beach cleanup
Organize a beach cleanup with your family and friends at your local beach, or, if you don’t live near a coastline, get involved in protecting your watershed and keeping it clean. When trash and other pollutants enter the water, they smother coral reefs, speed the growth of damaging algae, and lower water quality. Pollution can also make corals more susceptible to disease, impede coral growth and reproduction, and cause changes in food structures on the reef. Even if you just clean up one small bag of trash every time you visit the beach, lake or river—every little bit helps!
2. Practice responsible diving and snorkeling
Reefs are living ecosystems, they they’re very fragile. Physical contact with the reef will damage the delicate coral animals, and anchoring on the reef can quickly kill corals. Instead, anchor in sandy areas far away from coral and sea grasses and swim into the reef. When you dive or snorkel, remember your feet: control your flippers when diving or snorkeling so you don’t accidentally touch a coral reef. While it’s not the same as visiting in person, you can become a virtual reef diver by joining a virtual underwater trip online that gives you the feeling that you are exploring coral reefs underwater.
3. Never purchase coral souvenirs
You should never take coral out of the ocean, nor should you support that practice by buying it in a store. While thankfully it is illegal to sell coral in some countries, in many tourist areas worldwide, you can still unfortunately find red and pink jewelry and other souvenirs made out of coral for sale. Don’t buy them, and if you’re feeling outspoken, make your opinion clear to the shop owner about how important reef health is to you and how you will be taking your business elsewhere.
4. Don’t purchase coral reef fish or live rock for your aquarium
As marine life lovers, it’s understandable to want to have a home aquarium. But do your due diligence before purchasing marine fish. You only want fish that were bred in captivity. Many people with aquariums also like to create live rock landscapes because of how beautiful they look, but make sure to avoid live rock that is harvested from the ocean, as it can devastate the coral reefs and ocean habitats.
5. Use only reef-friendly sunblock (or make your own!)
Several common sunscreen ingredients, including oxybenzone and octinoxate, have been shown to be toxic to corals. Sunscreens that use non-nano zinc oxide as their active ingredient do not contribute to coral bleaching, and should be the only ones used. You can also make your own batch of reef-friendly sunblock for World Reef Day. A basic recipe is to mix four tablespoons each of coconut oil, olive oil and beeswax in a double boiler before adding in 1⁄8 cup of non-nano formulation of zinc oxide. Let the mixture cool off and store it in an air-tight jar until used.
6. Know that conservation starts at home
There are a few things you can do at home that can greatly affect reef health—even if you don’t live near the beach! For example, the less water you use, the less runoff and wastewater will pollute our oceans. Planting more trees helps decrease runoff as well (and as a bonus will also contribute to reversing the global warming of our planet and the rising temperatures of our oceans). Also of note, you may live thousands of miles from a coral reef, but the products you put on your lawn will eventually flow into the water system, making it important to research green alternatives for fertilizer and pesticides that won’t harm coral reefs and marine life. Nutrients from excess fertilizer increase algae growth that blocks sunlight to corals. You can also look into building Wastewater Gardens (ecological waste recycling systems) in your home, school or community.
7. Only buy sustainable seafood
In some countries, people actually blow up coral reefs with explosives so they can more easily catch the fish that cluster around them to sell to restaurants and stores. Another devastating fishing method involves putting cyanide into the water to stun fish. Never eat fish caught with bottom trawling methods, a practice so damaging that it can destroy reefs that could otherwise live for thousands of years in a matter of minutes. An example of a fish often caught through bottom trawling is orange roughy.
The simplest way to make sure that the seafood you buy is sustainable is to look for seafood with “USA” as the country of origin. Generally, if it’s caught or farmed in the states you can have a much higher level of confidence that the product is environmentally sustainable, because the U.S. has fairly strong fishery management laws designed to maintain and/or rebuild commercially harvested species and prevent and penalize overfishing. Iceland, Norway and New Zealand also have some of the healthiest fisheries and reliable enforcement. Your specific fish choices can also have an impact. For example, lionfish—an Indo-Pacific species that is invasive in the Caribbean—tops the Good Choice list. Lionfish prey on parrotfish. Parrotfish help reefs thrive by constantly “cleaning” them as they feed on algae, so choosing lionfish to eat instead of parrotfish is overall beneficial to reefs. Threatened species like the goliath grouper and Atlantic tarpon are found on the Do Not Eat list as they should never be chosen.
Also, look into buying seafood from a Community-Supported Fishery. They provide low-impact seafood options and also direct support to fishing communities that are actively working to support healthier oceans.
8. Ask your local aquarium to set up a donation system that supports coral cloning
If they don’t already have a program to accept donations that go towards preserving a nearby coral reef, talk with them to see if they can set one up. Perhaps with motivation and some pressure from the public, they can pledge to donate a certain percentage of all membership fees to reef efforts, or you could inspire them to send out an email asking for donations. Even setting up a simple donation box at the information counter is a great start! There are many programs out there that are deliberately fragmenting corals to create genetically identical clones. Around the world, almost 90 species are successfully farmed. Every year, practitioners in the Caribbean and western Atlantic now grow and outplant tens of thousands of corals onto degraded reefs, and these efforts are often funded by private donors, grants or government restoration projects.
9. Support Marine Protected Areas
Marine Protected Areas are essentially national parks in the ocean. They are sections of water where a government has placed limits on human activity. While an MPA won’t protect corals from heat waves, these natural safe zones can keep fisheries more sustainable in the long term, and fishers around well-managed MPAs often benefit from the “spillover” of healthy fish stocks that populate surrounding waters. Using our tourism dollars to visit Marine Protected Areas like the Great Barrier Reef is a way to directly support the efforts being made to protect our reefs.