The majority of reef loss or damage is not deliberate. Coral reefs are being degraded by an accumulation of stresses arising from human activities. In simple terms, stresses can be grouped by the actions of people extracting material from, and placing materials upon, coral reefs. Over-fishing, pollution and coastal development top the list of chronic stressors. In many situations chronic stresses are overwhelming the resilience, (or the capacity for self-repair), of reef communities. Some coral reefs are covered with sand, rock and concrete to make cheap land and stimulate economic development. Others are dredged or blasted for their limestone or to improve navigational access and safety. In addition to this, long-term changes in the oceans and atmosphere (rising sea temperatures and levels of CO2), and acute stresses from highly variable seasons, severe storms, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions also affect coral reefs.
Over-fishing: Increasing demand for food fish and tourism curios has resulted in over fishing of not only deep-water commercial fish, but key reef species as well. Over-fishing of certain species near coral reefs can easily affect the reef’s ecological balance and biodiversity. For example, over-fishing of herbivorous fish can also lead to high levels of algal growth. From subsistence level fishing to the live fish trade, inadequate fisheries management is forcing the decline of fish stocks. Choose seafood products that come from certified, well-managed and sustainable fisheries.
Destructive fishing methods: Fishing with dynamite, cyanide and other methods that break up the fragile coral reef are highly unsustainable. Dynamite and cyanide stun the fish, making them easier to catch. Fishermen say they have no other option if they are to compete with trawlers and overcome a smaller supply of fish because of previous over-fishing. These practices generally do not select or target particular fish species and often result in juveniles being killed in the process. Damaging the coral reef habitat on which the fish rely will also reduce the productivity of the area, with further impacts on the livelihoods of fishermen.
Unsustainable tourism: Tourism generates vast amounts of income for host countries. Where unregulated however, tourism pressures can cause damage to the very environment upon which the industry depends. Physical damage to the coral reefs can occur through contact from careless swimmers, divers, and poorly placed boat anchors. Hotels and resorts may also discharge untreated sewage and wastewater into the ocean, polluting the water and encouraging the growth of algae, which competes with corals for space on the reef.
Coastal development: The growth of coastal cities and towns generates a range of threats to nearby coral reefs. Where space is limited, airports and other construction projects may be built on land reclaimed from the sea. Sensitive habitats can be destroyed or disturbed by dredging activities to make deep-water channels or marinas, and through the dumping of waste materials. Where land development alters the natural flow of water, greater amounts of fresh water, nutrients and sediment can reach the reefs causing further degradation. Within the last 20 years, once prolific mangrove forests, which absorb massive amounts of nutrients and sediment from runoff caused by farming and construction, have been destroyed. Nutrient-rich water causes fleshy algae and phytoplankton to thrive in coastal areas in suffocating amounts known as algal blooms. Coral reefs are biological assemblages adapted to waters with low nutrient content, and the addition of nutrients favours species that disrupt the balance of the reef communities.
Pollution: Coral reefs need clean water to thrive. From litter to waste oil, pollution is damaging reefs worldwide. Pollution from human activities inland can damage coral reefs when transported by rivers into coastal waters. Do your bit – do not drop litter or dispose of unwanted items on beaches, in the sea, or near storm drains.
Global Aquarium Trade: It is estimated that nearly 2 million people worldwide keep marine aquariums. The great majority of marine aquaria are stocked with species caught from the wild. This rapidly developing trade is seeing the movement of charismatic fish species across borders. Threats from the trade include the use of cyanide in collection, over-harvesting of target organisms and high levels of mortality associated with poor husbandry practices and insensitive shipping. Some regulation is in place to encourage the use of sustainable collection methods and to raise industry standards.