Coral reefs are some of the world’s most diverse ecosystems, sometimes referred to as the “rainforests of the sea.” Occupying less than one tenth of one percent of the world’s oceans, coral reefs are responsible for fostering 25 percent of all marine species. They are an integral part of healthy fish stocks, as many of the juvenile species they harbor eventually make their way out to deeper seas, and do much to protect shorelines from damages that come from violent storms, such as hurricanes and tornadoes. Their economic impact is significant to a large majority of island nations and other coastal communities, for what they contribute to tourism and fisheries. Indeed, life would be much different if coral reefs were to disappear from our oceans forever.
But coral reefs are more than just a material resource. Corals are extraordinary organisms, displaying a myriad of different colors, shapes, and sizes, and can be found in cold, deep waters as well as the renown shallows of the tropics. Because their color comes from the various types of zooxanthellae they consume, the vibrant hue of a coral is a great indication of the health of a marine ecosystem. When corals experience stress in their environment, such as pollution, sedimentation, bacterial infections, or change in water temperature, chemistry, or salinity, they expel the zooxanthellae because they cannot supply the necessary nutrients for photosynthesis. This effect is known as coral bleaching. Although some coral bleaching can be recovered from, severe bleaching results in total death. Due to the slow-growing nature of many corals, widespread bleaching has serious implications for the immediate health of the planet as a whole. It is important, then, that we increase our collective awareness of the vital role they play in our lives today, before they are erased from existence in our future.