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.
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:
- Unsustainable fishing. Some fishing methods such as trawling and dynamite can damage reefs directly as well as remove fish species that are critical to coral reef ecosystems.
- Pollution. An estimated 20 percent of coral reefs are threatened by exposure to toxic substances, including oil, industrial chemicals, pesticides from runoff, antifouling compounds, and chemical fishing practices.
- Coral mining and trade. Reefs are mined as a source for construction material, as curios for tourists, and as parts of jewelry for sale or trade. Reef-dependent fish and live coral are taken for the aquarium industry.
- Coastal development. Reefs can be impacted by beach resorts, airports, marinas, mines, and other land-use changes.
- Climate change. Climate impacts that affect corals the most are warming ocean temperatures, which can cause coral bleaching, and ocean acidification, which can weaken corals, disrupting the growth of new coral.
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.
- If you live in the United States, this national database allows you to make smarter seafood choices by searching by fish.
- The Monterey Bay Aquarium also offers a sustainable seafood database based on location, as well as an app and physical cards to carry.
- Eating certain local seafood has a similar climate impact to eating plant-based food. This includes small fish like sardines and anchovies, as well as farmed mussels, clams, and oysters.
Check your sunscreen ingredients. Some common active ingredients in sunscreen are harmful for your health and the environment in large doses.
- Oxybenzone has been found by some agencies to be harmful to humans. As of 2019, Hawaii has banned oxybenzone in sunscreen after finding. unhealthy levels of it in their popular tourist bays where people snorkel.
- Here’s a short list of reef-safe brands some experts recommend.
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.
- Here are resources for cutting back on single-use plastics. There are alternatives to consider as well. Here is a blog about living without plastic altogether. Recycle and reuse where possible.
- Participate in a beach cleanup. Find one near you or organize one yourself.
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:
- The California Fish and Game Commission holds regular meetings about protections, and the public are welcome to attend and participate.
- The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) works on conservation issues globally. Learn about their efforts in marine protected areas, in particular.
- The UN Convention on Biological Diversity has a 30x30 Campaign with the goal of conserving 30 percent of land and ocean by 2030.
- NOAA has local-led beach cleanups and other ways to support MPAs.
Volunteer with a reef restoration or conservation organization. Volunteering can provide access to coral reef habitat. Here are some organizations:
- Reef Check has a science program that trains youth and volunteers to conduct underwater research.
- The Bimini Biological Field Station’s Shark Lab hires interns to live in the Bahamas for months at a time to help with research.
- The Ocean Agency is relatively new. Their founder is featured in the Chasing Coral documentary, which sparked a movement.
- Hawaii has extensive volunteer opportunities depending on your interests.
- The Nature Conservancy has a coral reef campaign. Friends of the Sea has a Save the Corals campaign. Coral Reef Alliance has one too.
- World Wildlife Fund’s Fight for the Reef campaign focuses on the Great Barrier Reef.
- Reef Restoration Foundation works with volunteers in Australia.
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.
- Rainforest Alliance has a certification program for resorts. They provide a yearly audit to ensure compliance.
- Consider locally run and owned eco-operators. Make sure you’re asking the right questions about the companies. Check out this guide for becoming a reef-safe traveler.
- Don’t buy coral jewelry, as it often hurts coral reefs, particularly deep-sea corals, which grow and recover very slowly from damage. Coral jewelry has been banned by some companies, including Tiffany. Even taking empty shells at the beach can harm the ecosystem.
- Practice responsible diving and snorkeling when visiting coral areas.
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.
- The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) works with fisheries, scientists, and other experts to incentivize sustainable fishing. Here is a guide to understanding whether your fishery can be certified.
- The Nature Conservancy works with many countries to promote and protect sustainable fisheries, including award-winning work with Indonesia.
- The World Wildlife Fund supports local sustainable fisheries in the Coral Triangle of southeast Asia. The Coral Triangle Center also works to empower local communities in this effort.
- Here are resources from the Coral Reef Alliance about managing coral fishery resources.
- Traditional fishing methods and subsistence fishing can be smaller scale, and thus more sustainable for coral reefs. This study from the Hawaiian Islands shows the importance of local-led monitoring methods.
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.
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:
- The International Coral Reef Symposium, held in a different location every four years.
- The Asia-Pacific Coral Reef Symposium, which is next meeting in Singapore in 2023.
- The United Nations’ Ocean Conference. In 2022, it was in Portugal. There is no fee for this event.
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:
- James Cook University, Australia
- University of California, Santa Barbara, USA
- Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego, USA
- University of Hawaii, Manoa, USA
- Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, USA
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.
- This jewelry company donates 10 percent of its profits to the Coral Reef Alliance. Here is a list of the Alliance’s other corporate partners.
- Global Fund for Coral Reefs works internationally to fund global coral reef conservation efforts with the financial support of corporate donors.
- Mitsubishi has supported a coral reef conservation project since 2011.
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.
- The traditional owners of the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral reef and wonder of the world, are the Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander peoples. European settlement caused the traditional custodianship to be disrupted. The Australian government is working to increase their partnership with traditional owners to the benefit of protected areas.
- Learn about one community, the Gunadule nation, leading a marine conservation effort in Panama.
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:
- The Waitt Institute works with governments to understand how best to create, implement, and enforce marine areas.
- Conservation International creates similar interdisciplinary partnerships to increase ocean protection.
- Locally targeted restoration efforts have been funded by government organizations. In Florida, the National Marine Sanctuaries and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have worked together to restore areas of coral.
- Additional guides and information on coral reef restoration policy can be found through the UN Environmental Programme, the International Coral Reef Initiative, and NOAA.
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.
ARC Centre of Excellence Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, Australia, is working to understand coral reefs and the threats they face.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) has a Coral Reef Conservation research group that funds and support coral reef research.
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has multiple labs working to understand coral reefs from a chemical, biological, and geological perspective.
100 Island Challenge at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California, San Diego is working to map coral reefs near islands around the world.
NASA scientists research coral reef and oceanographic conditions. NASA grants are often used to support coral reef science.
Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, Japan, leads efforts to understand coral reefs worldwide.
University of Hawaii at Manoa has state-of-the-art laboratories for both experimental and observational coral reef research.
Chasing Coral (109 mins.)
Coral Reefs 101 (4 mins.)
The Coral Reef Economy (2 mins.)
Our Planet: Coastal Seas (50 mins.)
Yes, We Can Save the World’s Coral Reefs (13 mins.)
Why Are Marine Protected Areas Important (5 mins.)
We Need to Start a Reef Revolution (17 mins.)
“How to Save the World’s Coral Reefs” (Economist, October 2019)
Corals and Coral Reefs (Smithsonian)
Can Indigenous Knowledge Save Coral Reefs? (BBC, November 2021)
“Centring Indigenous-Led Governance of Coral Reefs” (Economist Impact, May 2022)
Spiderwebs to the Rescue for Indonesia’s Coral Reefs (Mongabay, August 2022)
“The Oceans Take Center Stage at a UN Conference” (Washington Post, June 2022)
The Case for Ocean Optimism (Knowable, August 2021)
“Why Some Coral Reefs Are Thriving” (The Atlantic, June 2016)
Hacking Coral Sex to Save Reefs (Vox Conversations)
Why Sound Could Be the Key to the Future of Reefs (WSJ Future of Everything)
Coral Reefs (SciShow Tangents)
How to Save Coral Reefs as the World Warms (Nature Podcasts)
How Coral Reefs Work (Stuff You Should Know)
Coral Reefs—The Rainforests of the Sea (Ocean Matters)
Are the Coral Reefs Really Doomed? (How to Save a Planet)
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