Coral reefs are one of the most spectacular and fragile of underwater environments, covering less than one percent of the ocean floor but supporting an estimated 25 percent of all marine life. Even though they are located in the tropics, coral reefs benefit people and the natural world far beyond their boundaries. Coral reefs are in trouble around the globe: 11 percent of the world’s coral reefs have been lost and another 16 percent were severely damaged during the 1998 El Niño event. Scientists predict that another 32 percent may be lost in the next thirty years if human threats are not reduced.
Coral reefs benefit a healthy world by providing:
Habitat: Home to more than 1 million diverse aquatic species, including thousands of fish species
Income: Billions of dollars and millions of jobs in more than 100 countries around the world
Food: For commercial fishing enterprises and for people living near coral reefs, especially on small islands
Protection: A natural barrier protecting coastal cities, communities, and beaches
Medicine: Potential treatments for many of the world's most prevalent and dangerous illnesses and diseases
Coral reefs are biologically diverse. This means that the variety of species living on coral reefs is greater than almost anywhere else in the world. Coral reef ecosystems are like bustling cities, with buildings made of coral and thousands of marine inhabitants coming and going, interacting with one another, carrying out their business. In this sense, coral reefs are the sea's metropolises. Coral reefs provide shelter for nearly one quarter of all known marine species. And over the last 240 million years, reefs have evolved into one of the largest and most complex ecosystems on the planet. The reefs are home to more than 4,000 species of fish, 700 species of coral, and thousands of other plant and animal life. Scientists estimate that, in total, more than one million species of plants and animals are associated with the coral reef ecosystem.
By one estimate, coral reefs provide economic goods and ecosystem services worth about $375 billion each year to millions of people (Costanza, Robert et al., 1997, The Value of the World's Ecosystem Services). Many countries with coral reefs generate significant portions of their income through tourism. Studies show that on average, countries with coral reef industries derive more than half of their gross national product from them.
A good example can be found in Bonaire, a small Caribbean island. Bonaire earns about USD $23 million annually from coral reef activities, yet managing its marine park costs less than $1 million per year (Talbot F., and C. Wilkinson, 2001, Coral Reefs, Mangroves and Seagrasses: A Sourcebook for Managers). The variety of marine life and protected beaches supported by coral reefs provide an inviting setting for sightseers, sunbathers, snorkelers, and scuba divers. In fact, there are more than 8.5 million certified scuba divers in the United States who spend money on dive vacations each year. In 1997, the State of Florida earned USD $1.6 billion from coral reef and beach-related tourism. For residents of coral reef areas who depend on income from tourism, reef destruction creates a significant loss of employment in the tourism, marine recreation, and sport fishing industries.
Coral reefs are also a significant source of protein for millions of people. For people who live in coral reef areas, coral reefs are part of their lives. Reefs are directly linked with their traditional, spiritual, and cultural values.
Reefs serve as a buffer, protecting in-shore areas from pounding ocean waves. Without coral reefs, many beaches and buildings would become vulnerable to wave action and storm damage. In the tsunami of December 2004, some coastlines were spared further damage as a result of healthy reefs. In another instance, when coral and sand was mined away in the Maldives, it cost USD $10 million per kilometer to build a wall to protect the coastline (Wilkinson, C. and F. Talbot, 2001, Coral Reefs, Mangroves and Seagrasses: A Sourcebook for Managers).
Just like species in the rain forest, reef plants and animals contain medicinal compounds, many of which are just being discovered. Several important drugs have already been developed from chemicals found in coral reef organisms. Unique compounds from coral reefs have yielded treatments for cardiovascular diseases, ulcers, leukemia, and skin cancer. In addition, coral's unique skeletal structure has been used to make our most advanced forms of bone-grafting materials. Amazingly, more than half of all new cancer drug research focuses on marine organisms. The beautiful and fragile creatures of our coral reefs have the potential to make even greater contributions to our lives by providing new cures for life-threatening diseases.