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A Blue View: Rainforests of the Sea

by John Racanelli, Chief Executive Officer

Published July 24, 2013

A Blue View is a weekly perspective on the life aquatic, hosted by National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli.

From the smallest plants and animals invisible to the human eye to entire ecosystems, every living thing depends on and is intricately linked by water.

Tune in to 88.1 WYPR every Tuesday at 5:45 p.m. as John brings to the surface important issues and fascinating discoveries making waves in the world today.

July 24, 2013: Coral Reefs: Rainforests of the Sea

Click here to listen to John discuss the importance of protection coral reefs.

Sometimes called the rainforests of the sea, coral reefs are colorful, intricate ecosystems—among the most incredible natural wonders in the world. Their brilliant hues and diverse inhabitants make them a favorite of scuba divers and ocean enthusiasts around the world. But, coral reefs are also in grave danger—and saving these ancient splendors is both a necessary and feasible goal.

blacktip reef

Our newest exhibit, Blacktip Reef, is the re-creation of a vibrant Indo-Pacific reef!

According to a report by the World Resources Institute, 75 percent of the world’s reefs are considered threatened due to a combination of risks. Climate change has made bleaching, which is a massive die-off of coral polyps, and disease outbreaks more common. Increased carbon in our oceans results in ocean acidification, which, in turn, destroys the very structure of the reef. Overfishing and destructive fishing practices are disturbing the balance of these complex ecosystems. Coastal development, pollution, coral mining, and unsustainable tourism activities are adding additional stresses to an already challenged habitat. Some scientists fear that at this rate, living coral reefs could vanish from earth within a generation unless drastic action is taken.

Surprisingly, while coral reefs make up just two-tenths of a percent of the ocean floor, they support about 25 percent of all marine animals. They are critical spawning, nursery, breeding, and feeding grounds for thousands of species.

Many people don’t realize that corals are in fact animals, closely related to jellyfish and anemones. There are both hard and soft corals, and all live together in colonies, creating a foundation for all the other inhabitants of the reef, from tiny darting fishes to large apex predators like sharks and everything in between.

There’s no question that these ecosystems are environmentally critical, but they are also important economic drivers, creating millions of jobs and providing a sustainable tourism resource when properly managed. Coral reefs also serve as natural barriers for islands and other communities, helping to prevent erosion and minimizing the impact of waves and storms. In fact, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, up to 90 percent of the energy from wind-generated waves is absorbed by reefs.

NOAA also estimates that ocean temperature will rise nearly two degrees within this century from the greenhouse gases already released, which will undoubtedly threaten these critical ecosystems even more. As marine scientists explore just how coral reefs will cope with increasing acidity in the world's oceans, it is abundantly clear that we must act to save these oceanic treasures.

Scientists are now studying coral reefs along Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, where underwater springs naturally lower the pH of the surrounding seawater. There, researchers are learning how corals respond to higher acidity in a natural setting. On the other side of the world, a U.S. climate scientist is conducting an experiment on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to see whether antacid could boost coral growth by slowing seawater acidification.

These researchers are taking threats to our coral reefs seriously, and we need to do the same. The single biggest thing you can do to slow the deterioration of reefs is to reduce your own carbon footprint by driving less and conserving energy at home. We can also to make sustainable seafood a priority and vigorously support steps to enforce proper management of these resources. We do well to remember that our actions on land—our stormwater, trash, and yard runoff—all eventually work their way to the sea and impact coral reefs. We can all keep coral reefs in mind as we go about our daily lives—and remember that water connects us all.

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