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Landscape oriented photo of a coral reef. Taken in Key Largo, FL.
Elizabeth Schoolar

Saving the Coral Reefs: How You Can Help

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

Scuba diving is my passion and the ocean is my home because of it. There are few things I value as much as advancing in my craft, and that goes hand-in-hand with fighting to end the negative human impact our global community has on such an essential ecosystem. Because corals play such a principal role in these ecosystems, protecting and rebuilding the reefs is of paramount importance to overall ocean health. Since my very first dive, I have sadly seen first-hand the human effects on coral reefs. To hear my mentors reminisce on the vast areas once covered with coral in their favorite dive spots and then to dive through a coral skeletal graveyard is devastating. Few are aware of just how critical reef health is to the prosperity of all the world’s oceans and our ability to enjoy everything that they give us. To put it succinctly: without thriving coral reefs, everything falls apart. Some irrevocable damage has been done, yes, but it is possible to change our ways to prevent further desolation of a once-healthy ocean ecosystem. 

In my years as a scuba diver, my most rewarding and inspiring experiences have been my work with the organizations Coral Restoration Foundation and Reef Renewal Bonaire. These nonprofits are two of the leading actors in the fight against coral reef degradation and destruction. Working with them fueled my passion for both hands-on work in rebuilding the reefs and educational outreach to help others understand why this issue is so important. They taught me to believe that no one would purposefully want to hurt an ecosystem so crucial to our planet’s overall health and so harmful actions come from a place of ignorance versus apathy. To counter this, education on the importance of coral reefs, our negative human impact on them, and how to rectify it will be of noticeable benefit to the reefs. 

So why are the reefs so important to our planet’s health? There are numerous reasons why coral is vital, including cultural importance, medical breakthroughs on the horizon, and the economic health of countless communities. The three chief reasons that tend to spur people into action are the following:

  1. Reefs are absolutely essential for those who live near the coast! Coral reefs protect coastal communities from erosion and storm damage (in terms of infrastructure and loss of human life), both of which become exceedingly more disastrous without the reefs.
  2. 25% of all marine life is dependent on coral reefs. Without coral reefs, ocean life is inherently at great risk and the widespread effects threaten the entire ocean as a whole.
  3. Over half a billion people rely on the reefs, whether for protection, food, economy, etc. 
Vertical oriented photo of corals with two fish. Taken in Bonaire.
Elizabeth Schoolar

Clearly, coral health is a big deal. So how is it at risk due to human impact? Some threats, such as poor fishing habits like bottom trawling, might not be able to be improved by someone not immediately involved in the practice. Other threats, such as pollution caused on land that then affects the ocean ecosystem, can be improved by those not in the industry. One of the biggest threats to coral reefs is actually global climate change. Climate change affects coral reefs in a number of ways. Sea level rise, destruction from storms, additional CO₂ in the atmosphere, and disease are all at increased risk to harm the reefs. Rising sea temperatures lead to a phenomenon called coral bleaching, in which a stress response is triggered that causes coral to expel their zooxanthellae symbiont. Coral bleaching is reversible if acted upon quickly but permanently devastating if not. Most people likely think of the truly magnificent Great Barrier Reef in Australia when they think of coral. What people might not know is that the Great Barrier Reef has lost HALF of its coral since the year 1995 due to bleaching caused by global climate change (BBC Australia). If human impact can cause devastation of that level, what hope is there?

Though this all sounds very bleak, improvement is possible and hope remains. The key to changing our current path is swift and dedicated action on a large scale. As a consumer and otherwise-uninvolved individual, there are helpful steps to take that are of no lesser importance than on-site work. Some of these steps are specific to marine ecosystems and others are also applicable to general environmental health. Here’s what you can do:

  1. USE REEF-SAFE SUNSCREEN. This is one of the easiest fixes for those who frequently enjoy recreation at beaches or in the ocean. Sunscreen use is very important, but not all sunscreens are made equally! Typical sunscreens contain chemicals like oxybenzone, butylparaben, and octinoxate that are all proven to cause coral bleaching. Every time you go into the ocean wearing a sunscreen with these ingredients, it is going to harm the ecosystem. Finding a reef-safe sunscreen does such a service to the ecosystem we love. It is important to note that the phrase “reef-safe” is NOT regulated by a governmental agency vouching that it is indeed reef-safe. It’s best to take a quick look at the ingredients list and determine for yourself that it does not contain the chemicals listed above or other parabens, triclosan, nanoparticles, or microplastics (which includes exfoliating beads). I cannot stress enough how important this step is for reef health.
  2. NEVER touch corals. If you are spending time in the ocean, be mindful of your actions around the reefs and refrain from touching them in any way. Touching a coral can trigger them to expel their zooxanthellae. By touching the coral, you can have the same effect as rising sea temperatures.
  3. Protect water resources. This step is two-fold. First, reduce stormwater runoff! Trying to reduce your household stormwater runoff will protect water resources and prevent higher levels of flooding. Second, use chemical fertilizers as little as possible. All of the harmful ingredients in those fertilizers will eventually end up in the ocean, polluting it and harming the reefs. There are many affordable, accessible, and natural alternatives to chemical fertilizers on the market. 
  4. Practice environmentally-friendly transportation and energy choices if you are able to do so. If it’s possible to sometimes opt for using a bicycle versus driving a short distance, give it a try. Clean transportation is not possible for some but it has a great benefit in reducing greenhouse gas emissions that add to ocean acidification issues causing coral bleaching.
  5. Be responsible with aquarium fish purchases. Make sure your pet gets to you in a sustainable way and, above all else, do not release unwanted fish into the ocean. 
  6. Be responsible with your anchors. If you are boating in the ocean, make sure that you drop your anchor in an area not occupied by coral reefs. Anchoring on a reef causes extensive damage. 
  7. Make good trash and recycling choices. The ocean has a disgusting amount of garbage in it right now. Making sure trash is disposed of in proper bins and that you are following leave-no-trace policies (always, but when visiting coastal communities especially) does make a difference in how much debris harms the reefs. Plastic garbage can be seen stuck on a coral reef in the photo featured below.
Vertical oriented photo of corals with a piece of blue trash on it. Taken in Key Largo, FL.
Elizabeth Schoolar

While the crisis surrounding coral is daunting, we cannot shy away from it.  The world’s coral reefs are in great distress, which means we have to act now. It can be frustrating to feel as if you can’t help the problem, but individual actions are of great help and each action does have an impact. If you happen to feel a greater calling to get involved, I can’t say enough how incredible it is to work in restoration. Collecting data on reefs, working in underwater nurseries, and outplanting corals is part of the hands-on-work that divers are tirelessly doing to revive the ocean’s coral reefs. Whether you are doing your part by reducing your negative impact from home or working on restoration in the ocean itself, your impact is part of the solution our planet so desperately needs.  

“If not me, who? If not now, when?”

– Hillel the Elder

For more information on everything covered in this article, please refer to these credible sources:

NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Surfrider Foundation

Coral Restoration Foundation

Reef Renewal Foundation Bonaire

Elizabeth is a Texas native now living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and is excited to be a first-year student at Denison. She is majoring in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics and looks forward to studying abroad. Elizabeth most enjoys spending time outdoors, camping with friends, and scuba diving. A big fan of The Grateful Dead, you can find her always listening to music or playing the guitar.
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