Coral Reef Ecosystems
Coral reefs are highly diverse, productive ecosystems that provide the basis for billions of dollars in fishing and tourism globally. Unfortunately, coral species, and all associated reef species and habitats, are in peril. According to the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, the world has effectively lost 19% of original area of coral reefs; 15% are seriously threatened with loss within the next 10-20 years; and 20% are under threat of loss in 20-40 years. Coral bleaching due to global warming, ocean acidification, ship groundings, and degraded water quality (due to pollution) are among the threats to coral reef ecosystems.
Unfortunately, coral species, and all associated reef species and habitats, are in peril. According to the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, over 28 percent of the world's coral reefs have been lost permanently. Coral bleaching, ocean acidification, ship groundings, and degraded water quality (due to pollution) are among the threats to these ecosystems.
Coral reefs are some of the most threatened marine ecosystems in both the United States and globally. Reef building corals are tiny marine animals that depend on symbiotic algae called zooxanthallae to convert sunlight and nutrients into energy for growth and reproduction. Commonly found growing in colonies of polyps, both hard and soft corals secrete calcium carbonate exoskeletons that, in the aggregate, form coral reef structures. These structures reproduce and grow to become massive living structures that cover wide areas of shallow tropical and subtropical seas and represent some of the oldest living systems on the planet. Australia's Great Barrier Reef is the preeminent example
We generally think of reef-building corals as living in shallow, warm waters. But there are also cold water corals. Our scientific understanding of these "cold water corals" remains poor. But we are learning that deep-sea corals serve as hot-spots of biodiversity in the deeper ocean and their structure provides enhanced feeding opportunities, a place to hide from predators, a nursery area for juveniles, fish spawning aggregation sites, and a place for sedentary invertebrates to grow, much like their coral reef counterparts. These ecosystems have been identified as habitat for commercially important fishes such as rockfish, shrimp, and crabs. Because cold, deep-water corals like Lophelia and Oculina attract commercially important fish, they are susceptible to destructive bottom trawling practices and sedimentation. Oil and gas exploration structures and activities also damage cold water coral communities, and have the potential to introduce substances toxic to corals.
The United States is home to coral reef ecosystems. Ten National Parks in Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands and South Florida contain coral reef resources and attract more than 1.5 million visits per year. Fifteen National Wildlife Refuges and four National Marine Monuments preserve coral reef resources. The Department of the Interior's Coral Reef Initiative funds coral reef conservation and management projects in the US insular areas.
The full value of coral reef ecosystems remains uncalculated. Coral reefs, often called the "rainforests of the sea," can support hundreds of thousands of plant and animal species, with estimates of more than 9 million reef species worldwide. Located along one-sixth of the world's coastlines, coral reefs provide the basis for billions of dollars in benefits for fishing and tourism. Reef-related recreation and tourism account for an estimated $364 million in added value to the economy of Hawaii each year. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration estimates the commercial value of U.S. fisheries from coral reefs at over $100 million. Growing interest in the medicinal properties of corals as exhibited by the pharmaceutical industry should only increase the overall economic value of corals. Additionally, scientific knowledge contained within certain corals is invaluable. Living commonly for 300 years or more, some corals can provide scientists with hundreds of years of environmental data based on the chemical composition of their skeletons, which is important to investigations regarding global climate change and ocean acidification.
Unfortunately, coral species, and all associated reef species and habitats, are in peril. According to the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, the world has effectively lost 19% of original area of coral reefs; 15% are seriously threatened with loss within the next 10-20 years; and 20% are under threat of loss in 20-40 years. . Even small temperature changes (water exceeding 30 degrees Celsius) can trigger coral bleaching, where coral expel the symbiotic algae that provide both color and energy for the animal. Corals can recover from bleaching events but more frequently now bleaching events prove fatal. Additionally, coral reefs are increasingly threatened directly from another global phenomenon: ocean acidification.
On top of these global phenomena, many coral reefs must cope with multiple environmental threats, including: overfishing and destructive fishing practices (i.e., cyanide poisoning, dynamite, etc.); ship groundings and marine debris; human population growth and shoreline development; polluted run-off and degraded water quality; and siltation and impaired water clarity. In fact, the World Resources Institute estimates that more than 60 percent of the world's reefs are under immediate and direct threat from local impacts, and approximately 75 percent are threatened by the combination of local pressures and rising ocean temperatures.
The cumulative effect of local and global impacts inhibits photosynthesis and reduces the natural resiliency of coral reefs. Additionally, coral reef biodiversity is strongly dependent on total habitat area. Once reef area is reduced, the risk of species extinction accelerates, and the ability of reefs to recover is compromised. The National System of Marine Protected Areas, which includes many coral reef areas, plays a critical role in preserve and restoring the benefits of coral reefs to fishing and recreation.
H.R. 738, the Coral Reef Conservation Act Reauthorization and Enhancement Amendments of 2011, addresses many of the multiple environmental threats which coral reef ecosystems face. This bill enhances the Federal Government's ability to respond to emergency situations and to protect reefs from damages caused by vessel groundings. It authorizes new funding to support local action strategies to conserve coral reefs, as well as engages the international community in cooperative coral reef conservation. It also codifies the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force, which has worked tirelessly to build partnerships and strategies for on-the-ground actions to conserve these ecosystems. H.R. 738 is comparable to legislation that was considered and passed in the House during the 110th and 111th Congresses.