The comeback coral
One year ago it was announced that the Great Barrier Reef was officially dead at 25 million years old. This prompted a huge outcry of sadness and anger at the fact that one of the most profound ecosystems had died because of changing water temperatures and the stress tourists cause. Many individuals took to social media sites like Twitter to express their concern where there were images of tombstones next to the Great Barrier Reef signifying the loss of life. The problem with announcing death comes when the organism is not actually dead; coral bleaching and coral death are two very different things.
Not just a loss of color
Coral bleaching is just what it sounds like, when the coral becomes stressed algae that lives in it is expelled by the coral leaving behind coral with no means of photosynthesizing and in a vulnerable state. The stress that causes this bleaching can come from things such as change in temperature, pollution, even extremely low tides. The coral themselves do not contain color, it is the algae that lives symbiotically with the coral. Like any living organism, death is a real possibility but for coral this death takes a long time to occur. This is a distinction that gets left out almost always in articles about the supposed “death” of the Great Barrier Reef. In a New York Post article, a bleak line reads “Leading environmentalist writer Rowan Jacobsen declared the incredible structure dead, and wrote: ‘The Great Barrier Reef of Australia passed away in 2016 after a long illness. It was 25 million years old.’” This statement reads like an obituary and signifies that there is no going back to how the coral used to be.
The root of the problem
The main contribution to this coral bleaching is climate change. A huge factor that is often overlooked is prevention and conservation. In an article titled “Climate-Related Death of Coral Around World Alarm Scientists” by Michelle Innis “Reefs that take centuries to form can be destroyed in weeks. Individual corals may survive a bleaching, but repeated bleachings can kill them.” This is a huge pIece of the puzzle that gets completely left out when entire coral reefs are pronounced dead. This is dependent on the environment and the immune response of the coral i.e. Finding algae that adapts to their new environment or needs, if in their favor they can persist after bleaching.
This is a before and after comparison of healthy coral versus bleached coral.
Reliance on the reefs
While coral reefs are beautiful they serve many more purposes than just aesthetic pleasure, the tourism that coral reefs all over the world boosts the economy of that area. The Great Barrier Reef in Australia is estimated at $3.7 billion annually reported by Anna Cummins and Ben Westcott from CNN. Innis also points out “An estimated 30 million small-scale fishermen and women depend on reefs for their livelihoods, more than one million in the Philippines alone.” For this reason all hope cannot be given up on these coral reefs. Entire communities are going to be devastated economically.
Not only do 275 million people globally rely on coral reefs for their livelihood, 1,500 species of fish and a number of endangered species rely on the Great Barrier Reef as their home. These are the creatures that are usually overlooked in these kinds of devastating situations, the destruction of the reefs is a huge domino effect. According to a piece in Time by Justin Worland “Reefs occupy just 1% of the world’s marine environment, but they provide a home to a quarter of marine species — including a unique set of fish, turtles and algae.” This loss would take an immense toll on our oceans, more so than many are aware of.
To say that coral reefs are gone forever after a bleaching event would be incorrect. A coral die-off occurs after repeated bleaching events that makes it impossible for the reefs to recover. Coral reefs are such important ecosystems for species across the board from fish to communities of human beings that rely on the reefs for their livelihood. The most important thing that we as a whole can do to help these coral comeback is focus on conservation efforts.