The World's Coral Reefs Are Being Decimated, All for a Few Gaudy Trinkets

It's often said that reefs are the rain forests of the ocean — they cover less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the world's surface area, yet a quarter of all marine life exists in these ecosystems. But we're losing reefs four times faster than we're losing rain forests.

All the coral reefs in the world combined cover about 250,000 square kilometers — an area about the size of Michigan. But 75 percent of reefs are now threatened. There are the usual culprits — coastal development, climate change, diseases, and ocean acidification — and, in developing countries, additional destruction from fishermen who kill their catch by blasting the water with dynamite or cyanide. Reefs generate about $375 billion annually through tourism, fishing, and recreation. In South Florida alone, reefs are said to bring in more than $4 billion a year. They also provide natural protection against hurricanes, flooding, and tsunamis.

One need only stroll around South Florida to see how people undervalue coral by treating it as a decoration. The lobby of the Ritz-Carlton in Manalapan is adorned with intricate, bright-white, branching colonies, including one piece that's a display stand for a pair of cheap, pink flip-flops. A little farther north, at the Ralph Lauren boutique in West Palm Beach, a handful of pieces fills a decorative fireplace. Down in Dania Beach, dozens of coral skeletons line the windows of Alex's Gift Shop, a few with price tags tipping the $4,000 mark. Over in the display case are coral necklaces, earrings, and bracelets.

George Melissas, CEO of Shell Horizons, comes from a long line of sponge-diving Greeks.
Chris Sweeney
George Melissas, CEO of Shell Horizons, comes from a long line of sponge-diving Greeks.

Baker points out an absurdity: There's no real connection between Florida waters and the coral for sale in stores.

"I can understand the appeal of curio and shell stores," he says. "People come down here and they want to take something away to remind them of their holidays. [But ] virtually everything for sale in those stores comes from Southeast Asia. They have absolutely nothing to do with Florida, the Florida Keys, or anything even remotely local. Ninety-nine percent of coral in the curio stores is from Southeast Asia. As a souvenir, it's illogical."

Why isn't Florida coral for sale? Because the species in our waters are protected, and two of the most important ones — staghorn coral and elkhorn coral — were placed on the Endangered Species List in 2006. They're now afforded the same amount of protection as an African elephant or a bald eagle. This designation, as well as the recent addition of more species as candidates for protection, was spurred by a more than 85 percent decline in coral cover on Florida's reefs since the '70s, mostly due to pollution and disease.

Bleaching is another problem. When water gets too warm, coral essentially vomit out the colorful zooxanthellae living in their tissue. The white skeleton becomes visible underneath. Sometimes reefs recover from bleaching; sometimes they don't. In 1997-98, a single bleaching event wiped out one-sixth of the world's shallow-water corals, mostly in the western Indian Ocean, Baker says.

An optimist might say there's an upside to coral's sad plight: It has spurred an entire body of research aimed at replenishing the reefs. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, $15 million was handed out to coral restoration projects, including one aimed at restoring "136 Olympic-size swimming pools" worth of coral in the Florida Keys and Virgin Islands.

One of the world's most impressive coral nurseries, situated about 30 minutes off the coast of Key Largo, is part of that project. Rows of seven-foot-tall PVC poles are secured to the ocean floor and submerged in about 30 feet of water. Each pole is equipped with several long fiberglass crossbars, and tied to each crossbar are slivers of coral that sway gently in the limpid sea. From a snorkeler's perspective, it looks like a vast underwater farm of hot dogs dangling from 1980s television antennas.

The mastermind behind this underwater coral farm is Ken Nedimyer: part conservationist, part aquarist, part amateur scientist. He runs a small nonprofit organization called the Coral Restoration Foundation. Over the past ten years, he has developed arguably the most effective and simple method for growing reef-building coral: He ties a fragment to one of the crossbars and just lets it be. A specimen that starts out at three centimeters, or roughly the size of a pinkie finger, will grow into a healthy branching coral that measures 75 centimeters in a year. When large enough, these specimens are taken out of the nursery and transplanted onto select natural reefs.

Whereas many of his peers in the coral-research world come from academia, Nedimyer's business background sets him apart. Before he made a full-time gig out of growing coral to put back on the reef, he sold exotic fish and saltwater live rock for the aquarium trade.

"I was seeing reefs die for sure in the mid-'80s," he says. "By '98, they were just decimated." Now, he says, "I'm looking at how can we go full-on, 100 miles per hour forward, and industrialize this idea so it's massively successful. In the end, the scientists are going to have some really nice papers and interesting findings coming out. And I'm going to have put 100,000 corals back on the reef."

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10 comments
James Marshall
James Marshall

If you read the article the coral which is so plentiful in Solomans is not even a question that it hurts the enviroment there because it does not,they are cutting a channell thru an area and letting local island natives collect and sell what they would have thrown away anyway.The Fish and Wildlife exaggerate the cost of the coral seized and lied about the value,they seized commonly mismarked coral but not coral that was illegal to import, so they can look good to there boss's so they can still keep a job.No coral is right to collect unless it is dying or being removed for a positive reason and re seeding is done to fill in the same amount taken in Solomans.Why do Tree Huggers always cry when no damage is done and no one smuggled any coral on purpose.Why not re seed Strombus Gigas -Queen Conchs back into Key West -WHY? Because the U.S. Government has Red Tape worst than any country.Why do we not have Queen Conch shells re seeded into the Keys area???Why do you hamper the people growing coral in the keys????Stop the crying eco nuts,they do nothing but collect money to yell and say false statements.When George SOROS dies then you will need to find another person to send you money to complain.Remember when the eco ship tore thru the reef in Keywest and no one ever paid a dime for fines or re seeding the huge long reef they tore out?????The eco ship destroyed more fragile coral in Florida that any imported coral from coral Islands in the south Pacific which is packed full of coral as far as the eye can see and beyond.Stop the lying you liberal fools,corals reefs are three times larger than the USA. and doing better than the horror stories you write,get out there and see for yourself.

chrism
chrism

Peace FQS9000,you jerk!

FQS9000
FQS9000

Spare me.  The Solomon Islands are destitute.  The Solomon Islands have plenty of coral and as far as they are concerned it has no value to them at all other than what it will get from Florida tourists.  Tree hugger stories like this have real victims, and it isn't the reefs, it is the Solomon Islander's children who will have no chance for a decent life because some pin head here thinks they know best what is good for everybody else.  Tree hugging morons want every wild thing in a protected park that only they can access.

The rest of us live on this planet too, and tree huggers are far from being either disinterested, smart or educated.

chrism
chrism

You sound like such an assh>>>!!!!!!

richyoung
richyoung

I have little faith that plundering the Solomon Isle's coral will in any way help any children in the Solomon Isles.  You sir, are very misinformed and should refrain from public comment unless you have something of value to contribute.  Uninformed opinions are useless.

Jf
Jf

Right On! So sick of the flea humpers thinking the resources belong only to them and everyone else stay away.

James Marshall
James Marshall

So when the U.S Government dropped the hydrogen bomb on BiKINI Island it wipped out a reef half the size of Great Barrier reef in Australia and no one asks how's it going everyone!!!Well the reef is growing back to fullest size because no more Bombs and no fertilizers and no de forestation,or condos,hotels,seawalls,and flushing toilets on the reef.The reef is huge,so big and beautiful you would freak out,people are doing great again still getting checks for the bang the U.S. dropped on them but otherwise living better than millions in U.S.The Island is now ok to live on and people are going back to settle on the island and fish on the reefs and eat shell meat and turtles and clams,ECT.This is there way of life leave them alone,you have dictated there lives enough.They use coral for footers in the base of there homes there is so much coral,eco nuts want to tell them what to do all the time-----------stop it you liberal fools-------stop it overseas also know what I mean.

FQS9000
FQS9000

So according to you the children of the Solomon Islands can go naked, hungry, uneducated and without medical services so a coral reef you'll never see can be pristine.

I bet you wouldn't take that choice for your own children.

richyoung
richyoung

 Declaring you are sized to satisfy flees is not something you should do in public.

richyoung
richyoung

If you got that from what I wrote you are truly an idiot!

If it can be can guaranteed that "the children of the solomon islesz" will benefit from plundering their resources then that is their perogative. However, I doubt that any children other than those of the alresdy wealthy are actually benefiting from this trade.

Actually, I am intelligent enough to understand what you wrote and you are an idiot!

 
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