A weekly homage to endangered species, large and small.
Coral reefs are the ocean’s jungles, teeming with biodiversity unlike anywhere else on the planet. Warm tropical waters create ideal living conditions for coral polyps, the tiny creatures that secrete limestone and thus build the world’s coral reefs. These coral systems are extremely rare, occupying less than one tenth of one percent of Earth’s oceans, yet they contain an estimated 25 percent of all marine species (see wiki citation).
That’s why the rapid decline in health of the world’s coral reefs is so devastating. For example, elkhorn and staghorn corals have declined by 90 percent just in the last 30 years, landing both species on the endangered species list in 2006. And another 82 species are likely to be considered for federal protection under the ESA in the next year. These coral species have been wiped out by disease which has been aggravated by hurricanes, predation, bleaching and the increasingly damaging effects of global warming, which is both raising the temperature and acidity of our oceans.
The loss of coral reefs is not just a conservation concern, however. Hundreds, if not thousands, of businesses on Florida’s southern coast benefit from coral-related tourism. Each year, tourists flock to southern Florida for fishing, diving, snorkeling and boating tours along the coral reefs that add more than $4 billion to the region’s economy. This boom provides an estimated 70,000 jobs with a total payroll of more than $1 billion. (See NOAA report, Socioeconomic Study of Reefs in Southeast Florida)
Coral reefs also provide a number of ecosystem services that we are only beginning to fully appreciate. The value of fisheries alone has been estimated to be worth between $15,000 and $150,000 per square kilometer, depending on the type of fish available (see pg. 12 of coral reef management sourcebook). Harder to quantify are the value of storm protection, erosion control and sand replenishment, all provided by coral reefs essentially free of charge. (See UNEP report, In the front line: shoreline protection and other ecosystem services from mangroves and coral reefs.) Without healthy reefs along the coast to dissipate waves and create more sand, the costs of storm damage, beach cleanup and finding more sand would all skyrocket.
The biodiversity along coral reefs is so high that they are also a promising place for pharmaceutical development. These hotbeds of sea life force creatures to eke out a living in close proximity to each other, where the ongoing battle for survival is almost always won by chemical weaponry, creating just the kind of proving ground biochemists dream of. This relatively new field of research is already producing results with the discovery of a potential replacement for the popular cancer drug Taxol—which coincidentally comes from another endangered species, the Pacific yew tree.
Protecting coral reefs ensures that we can continue to probe its makeshift laboratory for miracle cures, provide food and jobs for our families, and maintain our first line of defense against storm damage. Now that’s getting a lot of bang for our buck.
Learn more about the value of coral reefs in Defenders’ report, Conservation Pays: How protecting Endangered and Threatened Species Makes Good Business Sense.