Series 02: Why I care for coral reefs
The reef as a source of food and income for coastal communities: A local fisherman is spearfishing in Palau. (The Ocean Agency / Coral Reef Image Bank)
I don’t eat fish and seafood for two reasons. First of all, I don’t really like the taste of herring, clams, shrimps, and co., which helps me make the sacrifice. Secondly, I avoid seafood because of the worldwide overfishing of at least one-third of all fish stocks (FAO 2018) and the large amount of bycatch and habitat destruction that go along with many fishing practices. Refusing to eat fish is an easy decision for me to make because I do not live in an area where fishing is the main source of food or income.
Fish and seafood play an important role in global food provision, accounting for about 20 percent of animal protein and 6.7 percent of all protein consumed by people. This number is even higher in some developing countries such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and many small developing island nations, which derive 50 percent or more of their animal protein from aquatic foods and where many families rely on fishing as their only source of food and income.
The ocean contributes a major portion of these fish products that are eaten or processed around the world, with ocean-based production representing nearly 90 percent of global landings from capture fisheries and about a third of aquaculture production (C. Costello et al, 2020). And the demand for ocean-derived food will continue to grow as the global population is rising, while at the same time land degradation and climate change are making it harder to produce sufficient food through agriculture.
As the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations emphasizes in its latest report on the state of world fisheries and aquaculture: “Human societies face the enormous challenge of having to provide food and livelihoods to a population well in excess of 9 billion people by the middle of the twenty-first century, while addressing the disproportionate impacts of climate change and environmental degradation on the resource base” (FAO 2018).
Various forms of reef fisheries: On the left photo, a boy living in the Dominican Republic is presenting his catch of the day to SECORE photographer Paul Selvaggio. The image in the middle shows an aquaculture complex (Hanson Lu, Unsplash), the photo on the right a fisherman throwing his net (Raquel C. Bagnol / Coral Reef Image Bank).
Coral Reefs play an essential role in feeding the world
Coral Reefs already play a crucial role in feeding the world. They provide food, livelihoods and economic opportunity to 500 million people in more than 100 countries around the world (O. Hoegh-Guldberg et al, 2017). The underwater cities built by corals over time host at least a quarter of all known marine species, and many provide countless coastal fishing communities with regular food and income. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, for instance, is home to 1625 species of fish, including important commercial species such as coral trout, more than 3000 species of mollusks (such as conch and squid), 630 species of echinoderm (sea stars, urchins, and cucumbers), 30 species of whales and dolphins and 133 species of sharks and rays – just to name a few of them (Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority). In the Caribbean, valuable and ecologically important reef fish species such as the Nassau Grouper (Epinephelus striatus) are still fished in many places, although the remaining stocks are overexploited (NOAA).
Economic returns from commercial fisheries in reef areas add up to billions of dollars. To give an example: Economic returns from commercial fisheries in the Mesoamerican Reef totaled an estimated 480 million US-$ in 2017; returns for fisheries in the Coral Triangle region totaled 5,8 billion US-$ in the same year (UN Environment, ISU, ICRI and Trucost 2018. The Coral Reef Economy).
A Goliath Grouper in Cuba (Fabrice Dudenhofer / Coral Reef Image Bank)
It is happening now, not in the future
If the world loses its tropical reefs, all reef dependent marine species will lose their habitat, which means that especially those dependent coastal reef fishing families won’t have sufficient seafood to eat. Livelihoods in coral reef regions will change dramatically, lowering life quality for the coastal communities and pushing hundreds of thousands of people into poverty.
It is not a future scenario we are speaking of. Coral reefs around the globe have been facing growing challenges caused by local to global impacts of human activities. Over the past 200 years, humans have fundamentally changed coastlines, overexploited reef fish stocks, and polluted coastal waters, to a point, where many coral reef ecosystems are degrading (O. Hoegh-Guldberg et al, 2017). Global trends such as ocean warming and ocean acidification have been adding to these local stressors since the second half of the 20th century and are enhancing coral bleaching and reef degradation. Due to climate change reefs are further exposed to other increasing impacts such as increased storm intensity. Not even a year ago, the world held its breath for a moment, when hurricane Dorian lingered over the Bahamas, causing major devastation to communities and reefs (C. Dahlgren & K. Sherman 2020).
Warm-water coral reefs have declined by at least 50 percent over the past 30 to 50 years in large parts of the world’s tropical regions (O. Hoegh-Guldberg et al, 2017). And as I’m writing these lines, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is experiencing its third extensive bleaching event in only five years. It follows the worst mass bleaching event on record killing about half of the corals of the world’s biggest tropical reef system in 2016 and 2017 (The Guardian, March 2020).
Saving coral reefs takes a multitude of actions―starting with the drastic reduction of our global greenhouse gas emissions to reduce global warming and its impacts. Simultaneously we need to develop and deploy efficient ways to restore coastal wetlands and mangrove forest, reduce water pollution, restore degraded coral reefs, implement marine protected areas and sustainable fishing in those areas still open for fishing, and find ways to sustainably produce seafood in aquaculture systems that recycle and reuse all nutrients.
Healthy, thriving coral reefs are urgently needed to feed coastal communities and the countless tourists spending their holidays on tropical beaches. That’s why, we should implement sustainable reef management solutions wherever we can, share our lessons learned with each other, and do everything we can to conserve and possibly restore coral reefs around the globe.
Costello, C., L. Cao, S. Gelcich et al. (2019). The Future of Food from the Sea. Washington, DC:
World Resources Institute. Available online at www.oceanpanel.org/future-food-sea
C. Dahlgren & K. Sherman (2020): Preliminary Assessment of Hurricane Dorian’s Impact on Coral Reefs of Abaco and Grand Bahama, Perry Institute for Marine Science
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority: Animals
O. Hoegh-Guldberg, E. Poloczanska, W. Skirving & S. Dove (2017): Reef Ecosystems under Climate Change and Ocean Acidification, Frontiers in Marine Science, DOI: 10.3389/fmars.2017.00158
NOAA Fisheries: Nassau Grouper
The Guardian (2020): Great Barrier Reef suffers third mass coral bleaching event in five years
UN Environment, ISU, ICRI and Trucost (2018): The Coral Reef Economy: The business case for investment in the protection, preservation and enhancement of coral reef health. 36pp