Coral Reefs: The Rainforests of the Sea

Author: Priyanka Rohera (UNU-MERIT)

 

 

Curaçao is an island paradise home to 35 white sand and crystal blue water beaches, located in the Caribbean Sea. The island’s European heritage can be seen through the architecture, and pastel colored buildings. The cobblestoned streets filled with shops and restaurants in the island’s city center, Punda and Otrobanda, provide activities for tourists and locals alike. From live music and the World’s Best Mojito Bar to the captivating colors and the historic area of Willemstad, a UNESCO World Heritage site, the island is a popular tourist destination. Curaçao’s diverse history can be seen through the presence of a large international community consisting over 55 different cultures (Curaçao Tourist Board).

This island paradise is also home to beautiful coral reefs that surround the coast. The reefs are under stress due to a number of causes including climate change, pollution, careless tourism and bleaching events. Coral reefs are underwater ecosystems that consist of various forms of corals, particularly stony ones. They get their stony exterior from calcium carbonate that holds together the coral polyps. Colonies made from these polyps are what we know as coral reefs. Coral reefs primarily reside in shallow waters. Also known as “rainforests of the sea,” coral reefs contain some of the world’s most diverse ecosystems and are home to about 25% of all marine species, yet only occupy 0.1% of the ocean’s surface area (World Wildlife Foundation). Millions of people globally rely on coral reefs to provide essential nutrition, livelihood, and also protection from increasingly life-threatening storms. Coral reefs are valued at approximately $9.9 trillion USD (Reef Resilience Network). Coral reefs are often a part of tourism for islands such as Curaçao, where some of the main excursions are snorkeling or scuba diving. The protection of these reefs presents a crucial economic opportunity for nation states with similar tourist attractions.

 

 

Today, about half of the world’s coral reefs are gone due to climate change, overfishing, unsustainable coastal development, pollution, sedimentation, destructive fishing practices, careless tourism and coral mining (WWF). It should be noted that without a call for action to address climate change, pollution, overfishing and destructive coastal development, coral reefs would cease to exist (WWF). Oceanic pollution is becoming an increasingly popular topic in terms of raising awareness on the effect that the pollution has on marine life. Reducing the consumption of plastic straws to save the turtles is a step in the right direction.

Coral bleaching occurs when corals are put under stress because of changing conditions around them. Changes in temperature, light intensity, nutrients cause corals to expel the symbiotic algae residing in their tissues, which in turn, causes the corals to turn white. The process of coral bleaching doesn’t always result in coral death, corals are able to survive a bleaching event, but they are more vulnerable to mortality.

Corals in different parts of the world can be more resilient than others to change. Water temperatures in the Florida Keys dropped 12.06 degrees Fahrenheit into the high 40s and low 50s in January 2010, causing a major coral bleaching event, and the first Florida cold-water bleaching event in 30 years (NOAA). This significant drop in temperature was about 20 degrees Fahrenheit lower than the lethal lower limit for corals, which is 60 degrees (NOAA). Coral bleaching is a threat to communities living in the Caribbean islands. As island nations, communities are dependent on coral reefs that surround them.

The Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF), headquartered in Key Largo, Florida, USA, is the largest coral reef restoration organization in the world. The CRF has a mission to restore coral reefs, educate others on the importance of the oceans, and outplant and monitor genetically diverse reef-building corals (CRF). The process of coral restoration involves growing corals on underwater tree nurseries and then outplant the corals into selected sites. Since 2012, the Coral Restoration Foundation has planted over 74,000 critically endangered corals into the Florida Reef Tract alone. The process of coral restoration is integral in healing coral reefs, because once healthy corals are outplanted, they grow into colonies and continue the natural recovery process of coral reefs.

Ocean Encounters Curaçao, a local dive shop, was the founding member of the Coral Restoration Foundation Curaçao in 2015. Ocean Encounters built coral nurseries in a local reef of the island, Stella Maris. At the beginning, ten trees consisting 400 coral fragments were planted. Since the beginning of the coral restoration initiative in Curaçao, other dive shops have also joined in efforts with the Coral Restoration Foundat ion Curaçao. Celebrating its fourth anniversary this year, CRF Curaçao has planted 38 coral supporting trees, with 1,500 growing corals, and over 4,500 corals that have been outplanted since 2015 (CRF Curaçao). At Ocean Encounters Curaçao, natives and tourists alike get together to volunteer for restoration dives to help care for the coral nurseries on the island all while enjoying the breathtaking views of the life below the surface. The collaborative work in Curaçao can be used as inspiration for people worldwide to work towards a common goal.