Coral reefs, a neglected provider for humans

When it comes to corals, we often overlook their importance simply because they don’t seem as active or alive as the fish happily swimming around them.

But once we understand why corals are important, how they work, and that they are just as alive as the fishes who call them home; then we would see the worth in efforts to protect them, as well as stray from the mindset that corals are just pretty rocks and good for photo ops.

“Corals have numerous functions in our oceans and come in many different shapes and sizes,” says Fatutolo Iene, from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment – Division of Environment and Conservation, who has an extensive background in the marine field as well as holding the lead role in the Coral Champions module during Conservational International (CI) Samoa’s “Guardian’s” campaign (campaign details can be found on Conservation International Pacific Islands Facebook page).

“They provide habitat and shelter for many marine species; they protect our shores and our productive wetlands from strong waves and tropical storms. They’re the source of essential nutrients for marine food chains, assists in carbon and nitrogen fixing as well as help with the nutrient cycle.”

As Mr. Iene mentioned, corals provides habitat and shelter for many marine species (over 4,000 fish species and hundreds of other marine species to be exact).

This is one of its most crucial functions because it acts as nurseries for fish, allowing spawning activities and provides protection for the small fish until they are big enough to venture out into the open ocean.

Fishing industries and communities around the world rely on coral reefs for that exact reason because it provides revenue and a good source for food.

Coral reefs also contribute to nation’s economy through tourism activities, such as diving tours, recreational fishing and other businesses situated near reefs which provide millions of job opportunities. Samoa’s neighboring nation Australia generates more than than AUS$1.5 billion every year from its Great Barrier Reef.  To the world, World Wildlife Fund estimated that coral reefs provide about US$30 billion of goods and services every year.

That’s pretty amazing considering coral reefs cover less than one percent of the earth’s surface.

Even the medical field can benefit from corals; coral biodiversity is considered by many medical research groups as key to finding new medicines for the 21st century. Many drugs are now being developed from coral reef animals and plants.

“But even with everything that corals provide for us freely, we humans are not doing a good job with protecting them,” Mr. Iene explained.

“Corals are already affected by the rising temperatures and sea level rise due to human induced climate change and global warming, but we are making it even worse through careless littering and other destructive human activities.”

Mr. Iene added that while climate change and the warming of the earth’s oceans is the leading cause of mass coral bleaching, it is still a complex issue to deal with.

Other human practices that directly impact the coral reefs are; littering of plastic and other material which can smother corals, preventing them from feeding and eventually killing them off – deforestation, which leads to soil eroding into the ocean making it murky and hard for sunlight to reach corals, affecting its photosynthesis process – farming activities with the use of chemicals which is washed into the ocean and killing corals, and the list goes on.

What about Samoa’s corals? Are our remote reefs spared from all these problems?

The answer for this is no; for one, there’s no escaping the impacts of climate change and Samoa’s corals are also susceptible to many destructive human practices mentioned above.

One of CI Samoa’s recent social perception surveys of a local fishing community uncovered that one form of fishing that many Samoans use involves intentionally crushing corals.

Nets are placed and when fishermen crush corals, the fish living within them scatter making them easy to catch.

National Geographic also reported that according to the Marine Pollution Bulletin (2018), a team of researchers who conducted a study of Upolu’s reefs found that much of them are heavily degraded.

“A combination of climate change, cyclones, and human activity has led to intense die-offs around the Samoan island of Upolu,” the National Geographic website stated.

The survey of 124 reef sites surrounding Upolu showed that live corals populated less than one percent of a given reef and below ten percent of live corals make up 80 percent of Samoan sites.

But what can we do to fix this issue?

The answer is simple. Stop littering, avoid harmful chemical work on land which gets washed out into the ocean, enforce laws against destructive fishing practices, and so on.

The Samoan government, through the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries – Fisheries Division and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, has been very active with the establishment of Marine Protected Areas and coral replanting programmes which the National Geographic reported saying “Despite all this, the team did find one glimmer of hope—two sites that sit within marine protected areas were found with much higher live coral coverage, a sign that with proper management and care, it’s possible to help the stressed out reefs survive”.

So with all the services that corals provide for us freely, and the fact that 2018 is the international year of the reef, the least we can do is protect them.

If this still hasn’t gotten you convinced, it is Palolo season after all, and without our corals, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy such a delicacy once a year. In short, a healthy reef equals more fish, more Palolo, and more money.

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