Coral reef protection
Coral reef protection is a process of maintaining healthy coral reefs. The key strategies used in reef protection include reducing the impact of stressors and key threats, increasing the use of management planning and effectiveness, using measurable goals for coral restoration, implementing management training and community involvement in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), and developing new techniques for monitoring reef health and species.
The purpose of coral reef protection is to sustain the assets the reef provides, and prevent further destruction of the physical structure of the reef. It takes approximately 10 thousand years for coral polyps to form a reef, and between 100,000 and 30 million years for a fully mature reef to form. The unique ecosystem provides a habitat to over 9 million species of organisms, and approximately one fourth of marine life. The three dimensional framework of the coral polyp itself is what creates the structure of the habitat for the species of the ecosystem.
The three dimensional structure of the reef allows it to become a shelter and habitat to different species. The difference in exposure to wave patterns creates a range and variety of habitat types. Millions of marine life species interact and live within the branches of the coral, and use it as a shelter, hiding place, and a food source. The coral need a mutualistic symbiotic relationship with zooxanthellae algae in order to build a reef. The ocean water contains relatively little beneficial nutrients that the coral can utilize. The single celled algae derive their nutrients by using photosynthesis, and the coral provide shelter to the algae in return for some of the nutrients. Coral receive their vibrant colors from the different species of zooxanthellae that inhabit them. Zooxanthellae populations can die with changing environmental conditions, causing the coral to lose color, known as coral bleaching.
Coral reef ecosystems are home to a variety of species of plants and animals that produce chemical compounds that are isolated and then used in medicines. Due to the genetic diversity of the reef ecosystem, research has allowed for the discovery of potentially beneficial chemical compounds. As early as the 14th century, the medical properties of coral reef dwelling species have been utilized. Antiviral extracts and tonics used as traditional medicine continue to be studied and researched, and toxic compounds such as neurotoxins discovered in coral reefs have proven beneficial as painkillers. The limestone skeleton of coral has also been tested and used for human bone grafts, due to its porous nature, and has a lower rate of rejection than artificial bone graft materials.
Impact of Stressors
Two types of stressors are associated with reef systems: the natural and human-induced. The effects of these stressors can range from negligible to catastrophic.
Reefs are not well adapted to survive exposure to long-term stress. Some examples include agricultural and industrial runoff, increased sedimentation from land clearing, human sewage and toxic discharges. Reducing these stressors mitigates the effects of increased ocean temperature associated with climate change.
Short-term stressors can also inflict damage, such as dangerous fishing practices, boat anchors or accidental groundings. Many fishing practices are extremely destructive to delicate habitats, such as bottom trawling, dynamite fishing, and cyanide fishing. The effects of ghost fishing also leave an extremely harmful impact on coral reefs. Boaters can protect coral by dropping their anchors on sandy patches of sea bed. Accidental groundings by boats can obliterate large areas of coral reef. Lettuce corals and branching corals such as elkhorn and finger coral are extremely fragile, but even massive boulder corals can be crushed or snapped off and turned upside down to die by a sailboat keel. Groundings in sand, or even the churning action of propellers, can cause major localized siltation, indirectly killing adjacent corals.
The aim of coral restoration is to help coral adapt to changing environments and to improve their recovery time. The NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Program and Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program approaches restoration using methods including responding to and restoring physically damaged reefs, preventing the loss of environment, implementing coral conservation projects, focusing on restoring endangered coral species, and controlling excessive amounts of invasive species. The Coral Restoration Foundation has restored over 100 genotypes of staghorn corals (Acropora cervicornis) using coral nurseries, and also has research goals of determining ecological success of coral reefs, ideal restoration locations, and how surrounding organisms affect restoration success.
By using coral aquaculture, the process of using coral nurseries to restore the world's reefs is a project that is capable of improving biodiversity, structural integrity and coral cover of the reef. Coral nurseries are used to rehabilitate areas of reef decline or physically damaged areas. In this process, coral gametes are harvested from spawning grounds and grown in a laboratory environment, then replanted when they are larger in size. This allows the coral to grow safely in controlled amounts within lab conditions before being transplanted. Nurseries can also begin as small patches of rescued coral colonies, and may be salvaged and restored before transplantation. In 2009, The Nature Conservancy began to grow over 30,000 young coral in underwater nurseries in Florida and the Caribbean to be transplanted.
Marine Protected Areas
Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) have become increasingly prominent for reef management. MPAs promote responsible fishery management and habitat protection. Much like national parks and wildlife refuges, and to varying degrees, MPAs restrict potentially damaging activities. MPAs encompass both social and biological objectives, including reef restoration, aesthetics, biodiversity, and economic benefits. Conflicts surrounding MPAs involve lack of participation, clashing views, effectiveness, and funding. Many MPAs have been found to offer inadequate protection for coral reefs by marine researchers. Only 27% of coral reefs are in MPAs. In addition, only 15% of sites were considered effective, with 38% being partially effective and 47% being ineffective. This leaves only 6% of coral reefs in effectively managed MPAs. In some situations, as in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, MPAs can also provide revenue, potentially equal to the income they would have generated without controls, as Kiribati did for its Phoenix Islands.
Biosphere reserve, marine park, national monument and world heritage status can protect reefs. For example, Belize's Barrier reef, Chagos archipelago, Sian Ka'an, the Galapagos islands, Great Barrier Reef, Henderson Island, Palau and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument are world heritage sites.
Inhabitants of Ahus Island, Manus Province, Papua New Guinea, have followed a generations-old practice of restricting fishing in six areas of their reef lagoon. Their cultural traditions allow line fishing, but not net or spear fishing. The result is both the biomass and individual fish sizes are significantly larger than in places where fishing is unrestricted.
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