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Watch out, Nemo! It looks like you may have to move to a new anemone if the neighborhoods you live in keep getting wrecked.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently set the record for the largest Endangered Species Act ruling by adding 20 different species of coral to their list for protection. Before this addition, only two species of coral were considered, illustrating just how quickly coral populations are decreasing.

According to NOAA’s assistant administrator, Eileen Sobeck, 83 species of coral had been proposed for further listing, but these 20 species received special treatment as they are all at risk of extinction in the near future.

Before the new listing, protected corals (elk horn and staghorn) only inhabited the waters of the Caribbean. The current group of corals is now spread out across a larger geographic span with fifteen species living in the Indo-Pacific. The other five species live in the Caribbean (near Florida), the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico.

Why Coral Matter

Corals may cover less than one percent of ocean floors, but they house and support 25 percent of ocean dwelling fish species. If you’re not really interested in coral’s importance to animals, then maybe it’s time for you to realize just how important coral reefs are to humans.

Coral reefs are vital to worldwide fisheries because they serve as living fish nurseries. Corals also play a role in the economy by boosting tourism, and they protect coastlines from devastating erosion.

As marine biologist and National Geographic explorer, Sylvia Earle, once said, “No water, no life. No blue, no green.”

Without coral, the oceans and marine inhabitants will experience a cascading effect that ultimately will harm human life on land.

Threats to Coral

There are a multitude of dangers facing coral and coral reefs today. A few threats to these fragile organisms include ocean acidification, pollution, overfishing, and elevated ocean temperatures, all of which can lead to the proliferation of disease that easily kill off coral colonies.

Bleaching is the most prevalent disease among the 20 new threatened coral species. Bleaching (a process that basically strips coral of it’s living tissues) occurs when corals lost the symbiotic algae that live on their tissue. These algae die off when water temperatures increase. Global trends show a rapid warming of the world’s oceans which means inevitable devastation for these algae, and subsequently, coral. 

Recreational activities can also play a huge role in the plight of coral. Swimmers, snorkelers and divers will often touch, break, or even stand on coral heads without considering the fragility of the organism they are interacting with. Boats will often drop anchors directly on top of coral, thus resulting in the crumbling of both the animal and the other organisms that depend on it for survival.

The commercial fishing industry also has a hand in coral destruction. Fish like to hide in the grooves and caves of coral reefs. To extract fish from these hiding places, fishermen will spray cyanide on corals, rendering the fish unconscious and easy to collect. This causes major damage to the coral that is now coated with this harmful toxin. Another popular method is “blasting,” in which fishermen use explosions to scare fish out of their hiding places. This destroys the delicately balanced coral ecosystem, turning them into deserted, lifeless wastelands.

Ways You Can Help Prevent Coral Damage

Hopefully the ruling to protect these additional 20 corals will provide enough time for damaged corals to regenerate and heal from past injuries. However, seeing as it can take 10,000 years for a coral reef to form, the likeliness of a full recovery anytime soon is far-reaching.

Though this listing may be good for the corals in the future, the ruling will potentially affect federal agencies in the present. If an agency wants to work in an area near protected coral, they must first obtain a permit as well as further consultation from NOAA before beginning. This will create some tension between industry and environmentalists.

Furthermore, activities such as fishing and tourism, and anthropogenic (or human caused) pollution such as coastal runoff are unaffected by the ruling. These activities will be allowed to continue without regulation, adding to the destruction of coral at a faster pace than most of us can imagine.

If you would like to help coral, you can start by considering your own contribution to ocean pollution and climate change (and not just by properly disposing your trash.) Start using planet-friendly modes of transportation (such as biking or walking) in order to reduce your carbon footprint. And consider cutting meat and animal products out of your diet as their production is responsible for 51 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

Furthermore, anybody can stop the demise of coral by simply becoming a better traveler. Support hotels, aquariums, and tourist operations that respect the fragility of coral reefs and participate in coral protection initiatives. Never touch any form of sea life (specifically coral), and be wary of where coral may be if you ever decide to take a dip near coral colonies. For those who live near coasts that house coral, volunteer for a coral clean-up crew, and remember to spread the word. With just the click of a button, you can prevent any further additions of our coral friends to the list of protected species.

Image source: Toby Hudson/Wikimedia Commons

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