Any diver can tell you that coral reefs are beautiful. They are like undersea cities, filled with colorful fish, intricate formations and wondrous sea creatures. The importance of coral reefs, however, extends far beyond the pleasure it brings to those who explore it. Coral reefs play an essential role in everything from water filtration and fish reproduction to shore line protection and erosion prevention.
Reefs play an important role in protecting the shoreline from storms and surge water. Barrier reefs, such as Florida’s, were named for the way they reduce waves and buffer the shores. Barrier reefs help stabilize mangroves and seagrass beds, which can easily be uprooted by large waves and h6 currents. Erosion prevention is particularly important in coastal areas such as the Florida Keys, where much of the shore is lined with residential homes and commercial buildings.
As the foundation for complex food webs, coral reefs support an incredible diversity of fish. Algae, soft coral, sponges and invertebrates create the base of this web. From small herbivorous fish to large predatory fish, all find food and protection on the reef.
Along side reef fish is an equally diverse array of marine crustaceans, reptiles and mammals. Everything from lobsters and octopus to sea turtles and dolphins depend on the reef for food, habitat and protection. Each animal plays an important role in the reef ecosystem, be it filtering water, consuming prolific algae or keeping a particular species under control. By supporting such a wide range of plants and animals, reefs are able to maintain balanced relationships between predators and prey and organisms in competition for the same resources. It is these balanced relationships that keep our marine ecosystems diverse and abundant with life.
Fish and other marine life have been a primary source of protein for as long as people have lived along the coast. From small scale artisanal fisheries to major commercial fleets, harvesting of marine life is a major economic force in all of the world’s oceans. Local fisheries, such as lobster, stone crab, snapper and grouper, all directly rely on the reef for spawning and habitat. Other fisheries, such as tuna, dolphin and other pelagic species, rely on the reef indirectly, though the bait fish that they consume.
Most corals and sponges are filter feeders, which means that they consume particulate matter suspended in the water column. This contributes to enhanced quality and clarity of our near shore waters.
Coral reefs often form the backbone of local economies. Tourists coming to dive need not only dive boats and guides, but also restaurants, hotels and commercial and entertainment facilities. In many cases, tourism asociated with reefs has expanded to transform the entire economy of a region. This of course has both positive and negative consequences for both the marine environment and the communities involved. For example, someone who harvests sea turtle eggs may choose to sell turtle tours as an alternative livelihood. On the other hand, an unmonitored number of tourists may result in environmental problems such as coral damage, pollution and inadequate waste treatment.