Imagine yourself on holiday. Does your vision involve sunny tropical beaches? For many people, the word “vacation” is synonymous with going somewhere warm and exotic. But if you were planning on doing some snorkeling or scuba diving, you might be in for a shock.
Across all oceans, coral reefs are disappearing faster than ever. While complex reef structures are built over thousands of years, they can be demolished in mere decades. Tiny coral polyps are sensitive to small changes in sea temperature and sunlight, making them tenuous habitats at best. Add in the large-scale damage often caused by humans, with sources including pollution, fishing (especially with destructive techniques such as bottom-trawling and cyanide), and physical impact from people and boats. Unfortunately, it is far easier to destroy a reef than it is to create one.
It turns out to be a challenge to reverse the damage, even with the best of intentions. Apparently, reducing or eliminating the problem may not lead to rebounding reef health. One recent study, focused on Caribbean reefs affected by seaweed overgrowth, found that the removal of seaweed predators – sea urchins and parrotfish – left reefs susceptible. When major problems like hurricanes occur, the reef is already weakened and unable to recover.
Does that mean that the situation is hopeless? Not necessarily. But urgent action is necessary. Part of the solution lies with governments and policies. However, there are ways to help on the smaller scale. Next time you visit the Caribbean, consider a few options. If you are in the water, don’t use sunscreen – wear a t-shirt instead. Avoid touching or standing on the corals. Don’t eat parrotfish if they are on the menu – and tell the management why you aren’t ordering it. And if you have a tropical aquarium at home, consider how your “live rock” (coral) and fish are harvested.