Ocean Insights

We’re Losing Coral Reefs. What Does That Mean for Our Ocean and Our Communities?

Coral reefs build a bustling metropolis below the sea’s surface. Thousands of species gather among the assortment of complex coral. As global temperatures rise and our ocean’s conditions change, the delicate coral animals struggle to survive and support the hoards of biodiverse life that rely on them. Subtropical and tropical waters between 30º north and 30º south latitudes house most of these remarkably productive ecosystems, with over 109 countries depending directly on coral habitats. But their impact permeates far beyond the nations they reside near.

coral reef with blue fish swimming through out it

Why are coral reefs important to our ocean?

The importance of coral reefs to our ocean and planet cannot be overstated. With so many organisms reliant on the habitats coral animals create, they shape the entire landscape of the underwater world. But on our blue planet, all life intertwines with another, and the chain reactions coral ecosystems set in motion carry on past the reef to the water’s edge and even to terrestrial environments.

Below the surface, coral provides a habitat and meeting place for an astonishing collection of biodiversity– supporting the highest density of species (most individuals per unit) than all other marine environments. Within a coral reef, fish find food, shelter, and a reliable nursery for their young. From tiny shrimp to apex predators like sharks, marine life of all kinds thrives in the intricate and delicate coral ecosystem.

It’s estimated that around a quarter of all of our ocean’s fish depend directly on healthy coral environments. That includes over 800 species of hard corals, 4,000 species of fish, and hundreds of other marine animals. Biodiversity is so extensive in reef environments that scientists estimate there could be millions of undiscovered species that inhabit these valuable regions.

Why are corals important to humanity?

We, humans, belong to the extensive cast of animals that rely on the ecosystem operations and abundance spurred by coral reefs. In a general sense, coral reefs support our ocean as a whole, and we all rely on our ocean for survival on Earth. But we can observe their influence on humanity much more precisely.

Coral reefs sustain fisheries, drive tourism, and protect coastlines. Over 500 million people rely on coral reefs directly through their economic impact or the ecosystem services they provide.

By fostering abundance and maintaining biodiversity, coral reefs ensure fisheries remain viable. In the United States alone, it’s estimated that reef habitats contribute over $100 million of value to the industry, with almost half of their federally managed fisheries dependent on a reef for at least a portion of their life cycle.

The bright, bountiful animals that frequent coral reefs draw tourists to visit neighboring coastal communities, as well. Their appeal generates millions of jobs in hospitality, recreation, transportation, and other accompanying industries – introducing $36 billion to the global economy annually.

Coral reefs also act as a natural barrier for neighboring coastlines. Storms form larger, stronger waves and sometimes produce a storm surge (elevated tides resulting from winds pushing water toward the shore). But for the 45,000 miles (71,000km) of coastline equipped with coral reefs, they gain a natural first line of defense from flooding, with a barrier that reduces energy from incoming waves by 97%! This shields around 200 million people from the full force of powerful storms.

In total, the coastal protection, tourism, recreation, fishery support, and biodiversity provided by coral reefs’ ecosystem services equates to $9.9 trillion USD globally each year.

Despite humanity’s extensive dependence on reefs and the resources they provide, our actions impact the ecosystem’s existence greatly— observed in coral’s 30-50% decline from pre-industrial times to present day.

Join our Tide community to help protect our ocean’s vulnerable species and the millions of people who rely on them.