Coral Reefs: Economic Engines for the United States 

Red and pink coral is used to make expensive jewelry.
Red and pink coral is used to make jewelry.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

There’s an otherworldly, intricate beauty to coral reefs. Made of living creatures that build their homes of calcium carbonate, these reefs have drawn people to lacy underwater kingdoms for centuries. Coral reefs have also been irreplaceable economic engines worth billions to the U.S. This year has been declared the International Year of the Reef 2008 to bring attention to how coral reefs enrich our nation and the planet.

Coral reefs, one of the most valuable and spectacular environments on earth, are also one of the most productive and diverse marine ecosystems. Coral reefs are valuable assets that contribute to a healthy economy by providing food, jobs, and protection from storms. They create habitat for many fish and invertebrate species with commercial value, support tourism and recreational industries, and shelter coastlines from storm disturbance. Coral reef related activities provide a significant economic benefit for many regions of the U.S. and the rest of the world.

Fueling Fishing Industry

Coral reefs cover less than one percent of the ocean floor, yet are home to a quarter of the world’s marine fish species. These fish fuel the fishing industry that feeds people in the U.S. and around the world. Scientific studies have shown that some fish that live in and around coral are larger and more abundant than the same species found in other areas. The reefs provide fish with places to hide from predators and gather food that grows there or flows in on currents.

Researchers extract a compound from this gorgonian coral to make a skin care product called Resilience.
Gorgonian coral used to make a skin care products.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

A Draw to Tourists

Coastal communities in the vicinity of coral reefs also benefit from significant tourism, which includes everything from resort hotels, diving and snorkeling, and recreational fishing to excursions aboard glass-bottomed boats. In Hawaii and Florida, tourism created by coral reefs brings in even more dollars and provides more jobs than the commercial fishing directly linked to coral reefs. In Florida, tourism connected to coral brings in an estimated $50 billion annually. Tourism connected to coral reefs in Hawaii attracted an estimated 6.7 million visitors and $11.4 billion in 2004 (most recent data available).

Protectors of Coastal Towns

Coral reefs also serve as underwater walls to slow down storm surges, guarding coastal towns and cities from severe flooding, erosion, and devastation. The Florida Keys reef system from Key Largo to Key West forms a wall that rises 120 feet from the seafloor at some points to protect the keys.

New Cures From the Sea

Swimming in shallow water among elkhorn and staghorn corals is among the top destinations for snorkelers, yet there are very few of these tyupes of reefs left.
Elkhorn and staghorn coral.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

One of most exciting new frontiers in the economic use of coral and species found on coral reefs is in the field of medicine. Extracts from sponges found on coral in the Atlantic are a component of AZT, the life-saving anti-viral drug taken by people with AIDS. Bamboo coral is used to make artificial bone. A gorgonian coral found on shallow reefs in the Atlantic has been mined for a substance that has anti-inflammatory properties. The compound is used in a skin care product called Resilience, produced by Estee Lauder.

Coral communities may contain vast potential for breakthrough therapies because of their biological diversity and unusual properties. The life history of these stationary, slow-growing, long-lived creatures requires them to evolve chemical defenses to ward off enemies and fight diseases. These same properties may provide life-saving therapies for mankind.

Global Threat to Coral

Climate change, which includes warming sea temperatures, the acidification of the ocean, and increased storm damage, has emerged as the most significant global threat to the future health of coral. NOAA scientists have been at the forefront of research on how climate change affects coral reefs and the communities that depend on them. You will be hearing a great deal about this and other threats to coral in the upcoming year, during the International Year of the Reef 2008. Coral reefs deserve and need the public’s full attention. The loss of coral would mean enormous economic losses for Americans and the world. NOAA logo.