Reef Rescue: Protect Coral Reefs with Your Actions

A diver cares for the reef by cleaning up discarded fishing gear and garbage.
A diver cares for the reef by cleaning up discarded fishing gear and garbage. (Amos Nachoum 2005/Marine Photobank)

Coral reefs are beautiful, vibrant ecosystems that house roughly one-quarter of all marine species and provide billions of dollars in products and services to humans each year. But they are also vulnerable to human activities – both direct disturbances and small, indirect effects that build up over time. More than 20 percent of tropical reefs worldwide have been destroyed and are unlikely to recover. But there is hope. Whether you’re on the reef or far inland, there are things you can do to help protect this precious ecosystem. Here are some ideas to get started:

Steer Clear of Souvenirs from the Sea Corals themselves form the backbone of a vibrant reef, providing the foundation for other animals’ homes and hang-outs. But some corals are also prized for their beauty on land – in the form of jewelry, home accessories, and souvenirs. Both the shallow-water corals that we usually see in pictures, and the deeper water red and pink coral species, are threatened by overharvesting. Most corals grow slowly, which means that snatching them up for mementos can do long-term damage to the whole reef community. Corals belong in the ocean, not in our homes or jewelry boxes. To learn more and find beautiful alternatives to coral products, visit SeaWeb’s Too Precious to Wear site.

Cut Carbon When we burn fossil fuels (like oil, gas, or coal) to power our homes, businesses, and cars, we are adding the gas carbon dioxide to the air. The blanket of carbon dioxide we've been building for over a hundred years acts like a greenhouse, trapping the sun's heat. More heat means a warmer ocean, which is taking its toll on marine animals from the poles to the tropics. It also causes the ocean to become more acidic, which makes it hard for organisms like corals and clams to build their skeletons and shells. You can help slow global warming and ocean acidification by reducing your "carbon footprint"—the amount of carbon dioxide released as you go about your daily activities. Power down: Making little changes in the way we live can go a long way to reducing carbon emissions. Try drying laundry on a clothesline or rack instead of in the dryer. Walk, bike, take the bus, or carpool to work or school. Replace light bulbs and older appliances with newer, more efficient models. Switch sources: Not all energy comes from burning fossil fuels. Clean, unlimited energy can come from the sun, wind, or heat deep in the Earth (geothermal). Call your power company or visit the Department of Energy's Buying Green Power page to find alternative energy programs near you.

Recreate Responsibly A trip to the beach or out on the water to snorkel is a great way to learn more about the ocean and celebrate all that it does for us. But when you visit, make sure you are not causing harm. When snorkeling or diving, never touch the reef! Corals and other animals are fragile and easily killed by a grasping hand or careless flipper. And never feed or handle marine animals. Take only pictures, leave only bubbles. Learn more and connect with other ocean recreationists interested in conservation by visiting the Project AWARE Foundation or the Surfrider Foundation.

Choose Pets Carefully If you have a salt-water aquarium, make sure you ask where and how the animals you buy were collected. A beautiful tank at home does not have to mean a stripped reef at sea. Look for the Marine Aquarium Council's certification in pet stores to find animals that were carefully harvested and well cared for. And never release an unwanted pet into the ocean or any waterway. Organisms that don't belong can crowd out the locals and disrupt the ecosystem.

December 2009