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World Wildlife Day (3 March) is a chance to appreciate all that nature provides. This year’s theme, “Sustaining all life on Earth”, gives thanks to our natural world that allows wild animals, plants and humans to thrive in harmony.
Among the most valuable elements of nature is the coral reef. Coral reefs are home to the largest variety of species in the ocean. You might think of them as underwater rainforests—full of living and nonliving components that, together, create one of the world’s most unique and important ecosystems.
But did you know that coral reefs are just as important for our lives on land as they are for the lives of species underwater?
Here are seven ways you’re connected to coral reefs:
Around half a billion people around the world depend on fish that live on coral reefs as a substantial source of food. Even if you live far from a coast, there’s a good chance the fish you eat came from a coral reef! More than 4,000 species of fish are supported by coral reefs, and an estimated 15 tonnes of fish per square kilometre can be produced each year by healthy reefs.
Coral reefs are a significant tourism draw in the regions they inhabit. Millions of snorkelers and scuba divers flock to see their beauty every year, and even more travelers enjoy the beaches they protect. This provides an array of tourism-based livelihoods on dive-boats and in service centers like hotels and restaurants.
Coral reefs act as natural buffers against storms and waves that can erode coasts and damage property or threaten lives. This is made possible by their complex shapes and the underwater ‘walls’ they build that help reduce the intensity of incoming waves. The protection provided by coral reefs is increasingly important as climate change threatens to increase the intensity and frequency of storms.
New medicines and nutritional supplements are being developed from chemical compounds found in many species that live on coral reefs. Although scientists have been doing this in forests for decades, it is only recently that we’ve begun exploring the possibilities provided by reefs. This means it’s possible we’ve only scratched the surface in terms of what powerful medicines might originate in coral reefs!
For people who live on coasts where coral reefs grow, and for anyone who has ever dived beneath the surface and seen their wondrous display of colours and life, coral reefs have a value untethered to money. In addition to providing us with the resources and services above, they are dazzling representations of the complexity and beauty of life on our planet. If you have ever seen a coral reef yourself, you might already feel that their presence makes the world a more spectacular place.
Coral reefs help keep our near shore waters clean from pollution. Many corals and sponges are filter feeders, meaning they consume particulate matter (pollutants that do not dissolve in water) in the water. This prevents these particles from settling on the bottom of the ocean and dirtying the ocean with harmful materials. The next time you take a dip in the ocean, don’t forget to thank the coral reefs for helping to keep it clean!
Sand on beaches are often thought of as the product of broken-down shells, but coral reefs also have a hand in building our beaches. In fact, much of the sand on many beaches is the product of broken-down coral skeletons. In addition, some reef creatures produce sand as a result of their coral consumption. For example, a large-bodied parrotfish is estimated to produce up to one tonne of sand per year!
Coral reefs are unlike any other ecosystem on Earth. Not only do these beautiful reefs support an abundance of plant and animal life, they also provide us with invaluable resources and improve our quality of life.
To learn more about what keeps a coral reef healthy, click here to take the Reef Riders Journey, an interactive challenge that lets you explore how species’ daily actions maintain the delicate balance of their ecosystem.
Source: UN Environment Programme
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