Coral Reef Conservation and Restoration
What are Corals?
When you think of coral reefs, you might picture crystal clear waters filled with vibrant marine life and seemingly rock-like structures. A common misconception is that corals are plants or rocks but, in fact, they are animals. Corals are actually colonial organisms, meaning that they are composed of hundreds or thousands of individual animals, called polyps. Stony, shallow-water corals – the kind that build reefs – are only one type of coral. There are also soft coral species and deep water corals that live in much colder waters. Corals grow best in shallow water habitats, usually less than 70 meters deep, and most coral species feed on phytoplankton (e.g., algae, small water-borne plants) or bacterioplankton (i.e., free-floating bacteria).
The Value of Coral Reefs
Coral reefs are some of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. They make up a relatively small fraction of the ocean – less than 1% – but provide habitat to around 25% of the world’s marine life. Coral reefs are also incredibly valuable ecosystems, contributing over $10 trillion every year to the global economy. Healthy coral reefs support commercial and subsistence fisheries as well as local tourism and recreation. The National Marine Fisheries Service estimates the commercial value of U.S. fisheries from coral reefs at over $100 million. Coral reefs also act as natural shoreline buffers against 97% of energy from waves and storm surge, preventing loss of life, erosion, and coastal property damage. Various natural or human-induced changes to this barrier can increase damage to coastal communities from wave action, storms, and tsunamis. As humans continue to develop on the world’s coastlines, coral reefs are becoming increasingly important tools to protect against the effects of climate change.
The Plight of the Corals
Coral reefs are threatened by changing water temperatures, ocean acidification, pollution, physical impacts from ships and storms, and invasive species. Rapid warming and acidification from climate change causes corals to expel their algae which causes them to turn white – a process called bleaching. Corals are also susceptible to a number of diseases including Aspergillosis disease, black band disease, and brown band disease. However, the lethal mechanisms of these diseases are not well understood. Other physical changes to the structural integrity of coral reefs may result from:
- increased boat traffic where boats run aground or drop anchor breaking corals
- negligent tourist activities including stepping on corals
- or more frequent and severe storms where corals break and are unable to regrow before the next storm arrives and further breaks off corals.
Collectively, the world has lost 30 – 50% of its coral reefs to date. Without timely and effective intervention, tropical reef ecosystems may face global extinction by the end of the century.
How Can We Protect and Restore Coral Reefs?
Protecting and restoring coral reef ecosystems requires a proactive, multi-phased approach that ranges from local to global efforts. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Coral Reef Conservation Program leads the agency’s coral research and conservation-restoration efforts. The program focuses on tackling four strategies:
- Improve habitat quality for corals by supporting research activities to reduce invasive species competition
- Prevent loss of corals and their habitat by identifying high-risk areas and supporting emergency response-recovery after damaging events
- Enhance coral resilience by researching and developing innovative technologies to improve climate resilience and reduce mortality of coral larvae.
- Improve coral health and survival by controlling the spread of coral diseases and reduce impact of organisms that feed on corals to support survival rates.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also supports the preservation and restoration of coral reefs in several ways:
- EPA strategically applies the Clean Water Act (CWA) regulatory and non-regulatory programs to reduce pollution that can degrade coastal waters and associated coral reefs.
- EPA is actively engaged in the S. Coral Reef Task Force (USCRTF), established under Executive Order 13089. The task force has produced a number of products to guide global coral reef restoration:
- EPA Resource Guide for Managers of Coastal Watersheds with Coral Reefs
- Corals and Climate Adaptation Planning (CCAP) Adaptation Design Tool and User’s Guide
- Handbook on Coral Reef Impacts: Avoidance, Minimization, Compensatory Mitigation, and Restoration
- USCRTF Watershed Partnership Initiative Priority Ecosystem Indicators
Where Coral Restoration Has Made a Difference
Fortunately, many local and regional programs have partnered with NOAA and EPA to develop targeted coral reef conservation and restoration programs around the world. Many programs have received funding from the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Grant Program that publishes Federal Funding Opportunities (FFOs) to solicit proposals for coral reef restoration activities, authorized by the Coral Reef Conservation Act of 2000 (CRCA). Read more here about the featured projects in CNMI, Guam, American Samoa, Hawaii, Florida, Puerto Rico, and USVI.