A Dying Natural Wonder
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After Outside Online posted an obituary for the Great Barrier Reef on Oct. 11, 2016, global disbelief set in. The first line: “The Great Barrier Reef of Australia passed away in 2016 after a long illness. It was 25 million years old,” caused an outbreak of criticism among the social media world with people blaming the actions of the human race. But the reality is that the Great Barrier Reef is not dead–it’s dying.
The Great Barrier Reef is a global landmark where more than 2 million people travel every year in order to see its beauty and varied wildlife. Today, it’s not only the Great Barrier Reef that faces challenges, but also reefs worldwide due to the ever-changing world around it. Climate change, unsustainable fishing and land-based pollution are the leading factors in the decline in global reef health.
With the growth of greenhouse gasses (water vapor, carbon dioxide and methane as the top three) in the Earth’s atmosphere, the global temperature has risen 1.33°F (0.74ºC) in the last century, and the ocean temperature has gone up with it. The coral reef becomes stressed when experiencing warmer temperatures that it’s not accustomed to. The stressed coral then expels the brown algae it has grown on itself, which will produce toxins to the coral in the warmer water. Without this algae, the coral becomes stark white due to translucent tissue that shows the coral’s skeleton. The National Coral Bleaching Task Force from Australia surveyed 911 coral reefs by air in 2011 and found some form of bleaching on 93 percent of them.
Unsustainable fishing by fisherman globally is affecting the marine population of the reefs as well. Overfishing can lead to a loss of key reef species that help maintain this underwater ecosystem. Not only does this affect the reefs, but it can also affect local economies. Many communities rely on the capturing and selling of fish to maintain their local economy.
Despite issues like these, there are many actions that can be taken to prevent further harm to the coral reefs.
“We can’t just dump toxic and chemical wastes in waterways and expect them to go away,” said Kenny Huston, a junior at Vista del Lago and a student in the AP Environmental Science class.
Pollution caused by human actions is a large factor that plays into the health of not only coral reefs but the ocean as well. In the ocean, there are about 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic sediment. With this data, there is about four million plastic microfiber litter per square kilometer in the ocean. Coral will ingest plastic at the same rate they will ingest their regular sources as food, such as zooplankton. By consuming the indigestible plastic, coral will slowly starve itself by filling their digestive tract with plastic, not being able to ingest or digest more food.
This decline in the health of coral reefs doesn’t only affect the health of the reef itself, but the habitat for millions of marine species and many global economies that rely on this underwater world. Some one billion people in Asia alone rely on the fish from coral reefs for food. Without reefs, regions like eastern Asia will take a major blow to their economy and food supply. Jobs would be lost and poverty would increase tremendously, as well as hunger.
“Because fisheries play such a big role in economies globally, the decline of coral reefs could be directly impacting that,” said Kimberly Moore, AP Environmental Science teacher. “Because the coral reefs are the start of a lot of food chains in ocean habitats, if those areas start to collapse we could see a collapse of food chains which ultimately drives the fishery production and economies in those areas.”
The roles that coral reefs play in this world go beyond the ocean. In addition to providing habitats for fish and marine life, reefs provide food and economies for many parts of the world. The loss of these reefs means the removal of an essential part of the world’s industry.
“We should all be very scared in the decline of coral reefs and trying to figure out how to protect them,” said Moore.
With the health of reefs worldwide on a decline, it is essential to take note of their importance in not only the ocean but in human affairs too. It is up to the choices we make about where we put our trash and how we treat the environment every day to maintain the health and wellbeing of coral reefs, or we will continue to see greater consequences in our future.