Any diver can tell you that coral reefs are beautiful. They are like undersea cities, filled with colorful fish, intricate formations and wondrous sea creatures. The importance of coral reefs, however, extends far beyond the pleasure it brings to those who explore it. Coral reefs play an essential role in everything from water filtration and fish reproduction to shore line protection and erosion prevention.
Coral reefs support more species per unit area than any other marine environment, including about 4,000 species of fish, 800 species of hard corals and hundreds of other species. Scientists estimate that there may be another 1 to 8 million undiscovered species of organisms living in and around reefs (Reaka-Kudla, 1997). This biodiversity is considered key to finding new medicines for the 21st century. Many drugs are now being developed from coral reef animals and plants as possible cures for cancer, arthritis, human bacterial infections, viruses, and other diseases.
Moreover, Reefs play an important role in protecting the shoreline from storms and surge water. In fact, Florida’s barrier reef were named for the way they reduce waves and buffer the shores. Barrier reefs help stabilize mangroves and seagrass beds, which can easily be uprooted by large waves and h6 currents. Erosion prevention is particularly important in coastal areas such as the Florida Keys, where much of the shore is lined with residential homes and commercial buildings.
However, the coral reef is being destroyed by the sheer numbers of visitors. Being the number one destination in the world, with ten times the number of the second highest rated diving area, (Australia, an area of reef ten times larger) the physical impact of so many boats, divers and fishermen is rivaled only by the impact of the land-based development that supports such activities.
Even the slightest touch can crush the fragile living coral polyps on the surface of each coral formation, exposing the entire coral head to infection and disease. Reef visitors that touch, stand, or scrape the coral with fins, hands or equipment damage coral that has grown for hundreds of years. Corals typically grow only one-half inch per year. The scrape of a fin can introduce bacteria that may lead to the death of a coralhead that is hundreds of years old.
So, there should be a great support for initiatives and plans to conserve coral reefs. Response to vessel groundings and anchor damage incidents, and the development of strategies to prevent coral reef injuries, are some of the most significant things we can do to preserve living corals. Now, next time you see a coral reef, you will know that it’s a lot more than just beautiful!