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Coral reef scenery with a pair of golden butterflyfish

Coral reef scenery with a pair of golden butterflyfish (Chaetodon semilarvatus), Red Sea orange face butterflyfish (Chaetodon larvatus) and an exquisite or blacktail butterflyfish (Chaetodon austriacus) swimming past soft corals (Dendronephthya sp). Egypt, Red Sea.

Credit: Georgette Douwma via Getty Images

Coral Reefs

Call to action:

Protect and promote resilience of coral reef ecosystems and the communities of humans and other organisms who rely on them.

Coral reefs are among the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. They are home to an estimated 25 percent of all marine species despite making up only 1 percent of the earth’s surface. Coral reefs are nurseries for fish, provide coastal protection from storms, generate billions of dollars of economic income, and provide food for millions of people. However, they are threatened by overfishing, pollution, and coral mining. They are suffering bleaching events boosted by rising water temperatures and acidification caused by climate change. Reefs are built by corals, organisms that are sensitive to changes in their environment. A healthy coral reef can recover from damage, but global changes are occurring at a rate that threatens their resilience. It is vital to protect reefs from further physical damage while improving their adaptability to climate impacts.

Action Items

Individuals

Learn why it’s critical to protect coral reefs as quickly as possible. Often called “the rainforests of the seas,” coral reefs are a critical home for marine biodiversity. They can be found in shallow (sunlit) water, at medium depths (low light), and in deep water. Coral reefs exist in one hundred countries and support over one billion people, including many Indigenous peoples and traditional communities. They provide coastal cities with protection from storms. However, coral reefs are under threat in many places and have declined in their ability to provide ecosystems services, such as food and storm protection, by 50 percent in the last seventy years. For example, the famous Great Barrier Reef has lost half of its coral cover since 1995. Challenges to coral reefs globally include:

Reduce seafood consumption and eat sustainable seafood. Some seafood fishing methods are harmful and unsustainable, damaging ocean habitats and fish populations (see Global Fishing Fleets). Eating reef fish, particularly herbivores, can be extremely harmful to coral reefs. If you live in an area that serves this fish as seafood, avoid ordering or eating them.

Check your sunscreen ingredients. Some common active ingredients in sunscreen are harmful for your health and the environment in large doses.

Reduce your carbon footprint. Global climate change is the biggest threat to coral reefs. Lower your carbon footprint in your daily life. Options include reducing your consumption of meat; eating lower on the food chain; composting; traveling less; lowering your home energy use; saving energy; and switching to renewable energy. Much more information can be found on the Nexus website, including Wasting Nothing, Micromobility, Electric Vehicles, Heat Pumps, and Eating Plants.

Reduce your single-use plastic consumption. Every year 18 billion pounds of trash enters the ocean, of which 8 million tons enters from coasts, harming seven hundred marine species. The plastic crisis requires immediate action, which institutions are working to implement. See Plastics Industry Nexus for more information.

Support a campaign for the protection of coral reef habitat. Marine protected areas (MPAs) are often started by communities and small organizations (see Governance below). Learn more about movements in your area. Here are some examples:

Volunteer with a reef restoration or conservation organization. Volunteering can provide access to coral reef habitat. Here are some organizations:

Participate in reef-safe ecotourism. Many tourist organizations destroy reefs, manipulate sea turtle hatching, and remove reef fish and other organisms from the habitat unsustainably. Know the practices behind the companies you support.

Groups

Fishers

Stop overfishing and implement sustainable fishing methods. Some fishing methods have a greater impact on coral ecosystems than others. Consider how your equipment may be interacting with the environment.

Communities

Take leadership roles in the protection of coral reefs. For too long, local communities and Indigenous peoples have been relegated to subordinate roles in reef conservation and restoration. Examples of leadership include:

  • The island nation of Palau is convening coral reef scientists and supporting coral reef conservation.
  • The Seawomen of Melanesia are working with Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea to use Indigenous knowledge to restore coral reefs.
  • A community in Baja, Mexico, called Cabo Pulmo worked together to create and enforce one of the most successful marine protected areas in the world.
  • The community of Anagusa Islands in Papua New Guinea are using gwala—the traditional practice of setting aside a reef to allow the ecosystem to recover—to protect coral reefs.
  • Madagascar Coral Reef Network is stewarded by a working group including representatives from the local community.

Scientists

Learn more about current research in different coral systems. Network with other scientists, educators, and nonprofit organizations. Areas of active research include the effects of microplastics and improving water quality in coral reefs. Forums include:

Get involved in coral reef research. Coral reefs are highly variable in their conservation needs, and coral research can help us understand how to make corals more resilient to climate change. In the face of continued temperature and acidity increases, scientists can help corals adapt in a variety of innovative ways, including improving coral nurseries, creating artificial reefs (including solar-powered ones) for coral nurseries, breeding corals, and writing adaptability traits into coral genomes.

Educators and students

Learn about coral reef resources for the classroom. National Geographic Education has excellent online information for a classroom setting. This exercise leads students through brainstorming and experimenting about ways to create marine protected areas.

Study marine biology or become a coral reef scientist. Join a university or nonprofit leading coral reef research. Here are some of the foremost institutions:

Companies

Sell reef-safe products.

  • Safe Sunscreen Council is a coalition of companies working to raise awareness about reef-safe cosmetics and to support the development and adoption of safer ingredients in the industry.
  • Avoid selling unsustainable products from the ocean, such as coral jewelry, bleached coral, dried starfish, and sand dollars, as removing these products from the ocean can often promote the degradation of reefs.

Support reef conservation efforts.

Governance

Implement policies that are effective at protecting coral reefs. Governments can promote management strategies that focus on increasing the resilience of reefs by further reducing human impacts, including overfishing, mining, sediment and pollutant runoff, and invasive species.

  • The Australian government addresses these concerns and more in its 2050 Long-term Sustainability Plan for the Great Barrier Reef, including a $1 billion financial commitment. It recently halted the development of a new coal mine that would have impacted the Great Barrier Reef.
  • The Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Insecurity (CTI-CFF) is a multilateral partnership of six countries working together to address threats to marine life in the Pacific and Indian oceans.
  • The Seychelles government has developed a national coral policy for coral conservation and management.
  • The Reef Resilience Network offers an online course in coral reef management strategies.
  • Coastal development needs to take coral reef impacts into consideration where appropriate. Here is a guide.

Increase co-management of reefs. Top-down governance often overlooks the value of community involvement and innovation in reef protection. As this case study from Hawaii suggests, co-management may be a better approach for certain areas, particularly those with complex cultural associations with specific coral reefs. Consider Indigenous-led governance of coral reefs as an option. This report by the Pew Trusts recommends implementing greater local management in coral reefs areas where pressure from human activity is low.

Establish marine protected areas. MPAs are sections of oceans where certain fishing or human activities are not permitted. Areas can be protected in different ways, whether by seasonal permits, fishing limits, or no-take zones (see Marine Protected Areas Nexus). Examples:

  • Herbivores are incredibly important to coral reef health, and changing fishing rules can help protect them. Here is example from Hawaii.
  • The Indonesian government has designated Wakatobi as a 1 million-hectare marine park to protect its reefs.
  • This technical document prepared by IUCN has guidelines and best practices for implementation.
  • Marked-based interventions can also be implemented for supporting sustainable coral reef fisheries.

Partner with other organizations. Several think tanks, institutions, and governmental organizations exist for funding coral reef research, helping to disseminate policy ideas and work across governance and community:

Implement early-warning systems that predict coral bleaching as well as monitor its effects on reef ecosystems, making it possible to identify which reefs are more resistant to bleaching and have a better chance of recovery.

  • NOAA provides a summary of early-warning systems and monitoring tools for coral reefs.
  • Here is an example from the Australian government.

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