Coral Reefs – An Important Part of Our Future

Spanish hogfish at reef.

Spanish hogfish at reef.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

If you have ever visited a coral reef, you probably were struck by its beauty, diversity, and many colorful inhabitants. Even though coral reefs cover less than one percent of the ocean floor, they support an estimated 25 percent of all marine life, with more than 4,000 species of fish alone. In fact, coral reefs are some of the most diverse ecosystems in the world with thousands of species relying on reefs for survival. They also serve as important sources of food, income, protection, and new medicines for mankind.

Traditional fisherman cleaning a giant clam in Papua New Guinea.

Traditional fisherman cleaning a giant clam in Papua New Guinea.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

Fisheries

The fish that grow and live on coral reefs are a significant food source for half a billion people worldwide – many of whom live far from the reefs that feed them. Millions of people in coastal villages of tropical developing countries depend on reefs for their livelihoods, with 25 percent of all fish caught in these regions coming from coral reefs. These benefits are not limited to developing countries – approximately half of all federally managed fisheries in the United States depend on coral reefs and related habitats for a portion of their life cycles. The NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service estimates the commercial value of U.S. fisheries from coral reefs to be over $100 million.

Recreation

Make sure not to touch the bottom when snorkeling or scuba diving.

Make sure not to touch the bottom when snorkeling or scuba diving.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

Healthy coral reefs also provide income through tourism and recreation. Local communities receive billions of dollars from visitors to reef areas through diving tours, recreational fishing, hotels, restaurants, and other businesses. In Hawaii alone, tourism connected to reefs attracted an estimated 6.7 million visitors and generated $11.4 billion in 2004. Numerous studies have shown that tourists are often willing to pay more for their vacations in exchange for the opportunity to visit healthy reef ecosystems.

Storm Protection

Healthy coral reefs safeguard tropical coastal communities. Residents rely on coral reef structures to buffer shorelines against waves, storms, and floods, which help prevent loss of life, property damage, and erosion.

Lifesaving Products

Coral reef plants and animals are important sources of new medicines being developed to treat cancer, arthritis, human bacterial infections, heart disease, viruses, and other diseases. In the future, coral reef ecosystems could represent an increasingly important source of medical treatments, nutritional supplements, pesticides, cosmetics, and other commercial products.

Yellow tangs swimming in coral reef.

Yellow tangs swimming in coral reef.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

How You Can Help

Coral reefs generate income and millions of jobs to people in more than 100 countries around the world. But these vital ecosystems are in trouble. Coral reefs are seriously threatened by a variety of problems, including overfishing, climate change, and coastal development.

A new report finds half the coral reefs under U.S. jurisdiction are considered by scientists to be in “poor” or “fair” condition. The NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program is working in partnership with other federal, state, territory, and non-governmental organizations to support effective management and sound science to preserve, sustain, and restore valuable coral reef ecosystems.

This year is the International Year of the Reef 2008, a worldwide campaign to raise awareness about the value and importance of coral reefs and threats to their sustainability, and to motivate people to take action to protect reefs. Whether you live one mile or one thousand miles from a coral reef, your actions affect the reef’s future — and the reef’s future affects your future. A few small changes to your daily routine can make a big difference, because every act counts.