Among the many environmental concerns facing the world today are the consequences of the degradation of the world’s coral reefs. The coral reefs are considered to be the lungs of the ocean, much like the rainforests to the terrestrial environment. They are the basis of many industries, such as tourism and commercial fishing. Important resources for medicinal research, they have been the site of discovery of many medicinal compounds that are now synthesized in laboratories. The reefs are a global resource, and their importance should not be underestimated.
Unfortunately, the state of the world’s reefs is not a healthy one. The increase of CO2 emissions has increased the acidity of the ocean through acid rain, killing the small animals that live in the matrix of the coral structure (Harris). Also, this increased acidity breaks down the calcium matrix itself. The death of these corals allows certain species of seaweed to infest the area and repels crucial species of fish from returning to the depleted reef, thus further inhibiting the recovery of the reef (Webb). It is very difficult to rehabilitate a reef once it is depleted, so it is important for us to stop as much damage from occurring as possible.
Today, the issue of exploitation and degradation of the world’s reefs is beginning to come to light, though it is not a new problem by any means. The world’s largest coral reef, the Great Barrier Reef was recently placed on the “in Danger” list of the World Heritage sites (BBC). This highlights the magnitude of the issue, much like the safety of a species is called into question when classified as endangered. The reefs of the world are in danger for several reasons, including: the fragmentation of the corals for tourist and economic selfishness, bleaching of corals because of the increased acidity of water due to the emissions of greenhouse gases, overfishing of species that are in symbiotic relationship with the corals, disrespect of tourists, and finally trolling of the ocean floor. These practices reduce the biodiversity of the reef and damage the resources it would have provided in the future.
One reason for the perpetuation of exploitation of the world’s reefs lies in the fact that it is often not in the short-term economic benefit to protect them. The coral reefs are one more victim in the tragedy of the commons. Commercial proprietors focus on the marginal private benefit rather than consider the marginal societal cost of a practice. Fragmentation of existing corals for commercial sale, coral bleaching for souvenirs, and tourist disrespect of reefs are all direct exploitations of this ecosystem. However, major causes of degradation occur through indirect actions. The harmful effect of dumping pollutants into streams and oceans doesn’t occur to the factory owners, who are more concerned in being economically efficient in order to turn the largest profit. Even if they are aware of the harmful effects of this practice, they are blinded by the convenience of it. But it’s not just the business owners, increased emissions of greenhouse gases since the Industrial Revolution have caused more and more acid rain, which in turn lowers the pH of the oceans and kills the corals. Not only is this perpetuated by businesses using more of the commons to gain for their own firms, but it is individuals demanding the cheapest possible goods for their own consumption, even if it harms the resources of future generations.
In addition to the economic factors, political and social factors play a huge role in the continued degradation of the reefs. It doesn’t take careful examination to observe where the world’s most endangered reefs lie geographically. The ecosystem requires the warm tropical waters of equatorial regions in order to thrive. This places them along the coastlines of much of what is considered to be the Global South. This has many implications, the first being the disconnection of these less developed regions with the more developed Global North prevents the magnitude of these concerns from being brought into the light of the international arena. Moreover, it is hard to make and enforce policy changes when there is such a large economic dependency on the practices that harm the reefs. Less developed countries say they deserve to have the same industrialization period that the western world had with the Industrial Revolution centuries ago and call the developed nations hypocrites for advocating environmental protection laws now that they can afford to do so. This divide in opinion makes it difficult to effect major changes in the political sphere.
Though there are many challenges with this issue, and it will certainly not be solved overnight, there are tangible ways to combat further degradation. Individuals can work to reduce waste and their carbon footprint, refrain from touching corals when scuba diving, and not use anchors on vessels when an installed buoy can be used (EPA). Communities and non-governmental organizations can work to implement educational programs in order to change the public mindset on consumption and can support scientific research on how to rehabilitate the damage that has already been done to the reefs. Governments can pass laws to reduce the use of chemically-enhanced fertilizers and pesticides and can encourage sustainable development of industries. Taken together, these suggestions won’t completely solve the problems facing reef degradation, but they are practical ways to reduce the amount of damage being done while more extensive measures are still working on being implemented.
In closing, coral reefs are a resource for the global community and their degradation is a problem that has significant economic, political and social impact on everyone in the long term. If the international community does not step up on this issue, biodiversity in this ecosystem may never be regained. The commercial fishing industries will suffer, medicinal cures will be undiscovered, and political relations along the Global North-South divide surely cannot benefit from the stalemate on this issue. Educational awareness and active participation in measures to combat the ruining of the coral reefs will be key in saving their resources for ourselves and for generations that follow.