Precious but Threatened: Corals Harmed by Pollution, Warming, Reckless Actions

Coral reefs provide fish with food, shelter from predators and a place to produce young.
Coral reefs provide fish with food, shelter from predators and a place to produce young. (By Chuck Savall Via
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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

You have probably seen or held a piece of coral, either in or out of the ocean. You may even have heard that coral is threatened by global warming and pollution. But most people don't know much more about these vital ocean-dwelling creatures.

"People don't realize that corals are really animals -- they think about corals . . . as rocks or boulders or tree trunks," said Dawn Martin, who runs SeaWeb, an organization that works on protecting the oceans and ocean life. Since corals don't have the adorable faces of some endangered critters, it has been difficult for them to win the kind of protection -- and awareness -- that other threatened species have.

But it's important to protect coral, because a quarter of the fish species in the ocean depend on coral to live. Coral reefs provide these fish with food, shelter from predators and a place to spawn (produce young).

The main threats to coral are rising ocean temperatures, which can kill the algae that coral eat, and pollution. Other kinds of man-made damage also are harmful, such as fishing practices that break up coral on the sea floor and turning coral into jewelry.

SeaWeb has started a campaign called "Too Precious to Wear," designed to get out the message that buying coral items at the beach contributes to the destruction of reefs. More than 3 million pounds of living coral are removed from the ocean each year for use in these decorative products, Martin said.

When coral is destroyed, it can take hundreds, even thousands, of years to grow back. The hard coral that builds into huge, rocklike formations started out as a single coral polyp. The polyps grow a calcium skeleton and thousands, even millions, of additional coral polyps grow on the skeleton, each one a separate animal. As older generations die off, newer generations continue to build on the hard, old coral.

Damaging such coral beds "is like clear-cutting an old-growth forest," Martin said. "We will certainly not be able to replace them in our lifetime."

-- Margaret Webb Pressler

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