Coral Reef Awareness Month

What is coral and why is it important?

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an astounding 25% of the ocean’s fish depend on healthy coral reefs for their survival. But what exactly is coral? Is it a plant, an animal? Both? Let’s dive in and find out!

If you guessed that coral is an animal, you are correct! What we see as a coral reef is hundreds to thousands of individual coral animals, called polyps, who grow in close proximity to create the reef. Within those tiny animals, however, is a photosynthetic algae – called zooxanthellae – with which the coral has a symbiotic relationship. Symbiosis can be thought of as a partnership between organisms, and typically both organisms benefit. In the coral-zooxanthellae relationship, the coral acts as a shelter for the algae, while the algae produce sugar that is consumed as food by the coral! There are many ways that animals, including humans, rely on healthy coral reefs for our everyday lives. Check out the list below for just a handful of examples:

  • Coral reef structures protect coastlines and coastal areas from storms and erosion (NOAA).
  • Coral reefs bring in boaters, divers, and snorkelers that can help support local businesses (NOAA). In fact,NOAA estimates that over half a billion people depend on reefs in some way!
  • Sea turtles, sharks, and other marine species rely on coral reefs for food and shelter. Hawksbill sea turtles especially rely on the reefs for an ample supply of their preferred food: sea sponges.

According to NOAA, coral reefs support a huge diversity of animals – about 4,000 species of fish, 800 species of hard corals and hundreds of other species. 

Florida’s Coral Reef

Florida boasts North America’s only barrier reef, which extends from the St. Lucie Inlet in Martin County, all the way down to the Dry Tortugas – a distance of nearly 380 miles (FDEP)! The barrier reef in Florida is made of two types of coral: stony and soft. Stony corals are what we also call “reef-building”, as they are the ones who create hard, calcium skeletons that grow on one another through the years, creating a coral reef foundation (Florida’s Coral Reef). In contrast, soft corals are able to sway with the currents and do not create hard skeletons – some examples of soft corals are sea fans and sea whips.

Much of Florida’s beloved aquatic wildlife relies on Florida’s coral reef for survival. Several species of sea turtle rely on reefs for foraging grounds and shelter from predators, namely the hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) which forages for sea sponges growing amongst the coral. In addition to sea turtles, several types of shark and ray, as well as numerous fish species – including grouper – rely on coral reefs for different parts of their lives. The amazing diversity of life on coral reefs has earned them the nickname “rainforests of the sea” (Florida’s Coral Reef). See how many different organisms you can spot in the photo below!

Coral Conundrum

Florida’s coral reefs, and reefs around the world, are in trouble due to threats from climate change, pollution, overfishing, and disease. One of the most well-known, easy-to-see impacts of coral threats is called “coral bleaching”. But what is coral bleaching? It’s a lot like the name suggests! NOAA defines coral bleaching as happening “when corals are stressed by changes in conditions such as temperature, light, or nutrients, and they expel the symbiotic algae living in their tissues, causing them to turn completely white”. Read on to learn about ways that you can help Florida’s coral reef!

What can YOU do at home to help save corals?

There are a myriad of ways to protect coral reefs, even if you don’t live near the ocean!

  • Marine Debris | Help prevent marine debris from entering the ocean, and always clean up items that you find on the beach or near waterways.
  • Runoff | Runoff from fertilizer, pesticides, and even pet waste can enter the oceans, impacting water quality and causing stress for the corals. This can lead to coral disease and bleaching! Avoid fertilizing/spraying pesticides in excess, or before heavy rain, and always clean up pet waste (FDEP).
  • Sunscreen | Protecting ourselves from the sun is important, but did you know that the sunscreen you use can have an impact on coral? Choosing to use a “reef-safe” sunscreen means you are helping protect corals, while protecting yourself!
  • Fishing, Diving, & Boating | Using “reef-friendly” practices when fishing, diving, and boating is an important way to protect coral reefs (FDEP). To help protect coral, always be aware of where the boat is anchoring, and avoid dragging the anchor. When diving, keep a safe distance from the corals to avoid accidentally touching or disturbing delicate coral structures. When fishing, be careful not to snag nets or fishing lines on the reef!
  • Education | Learn about Florida’s coral reef, and how you can help, during Coral Reef Awareness Week (July 25 – August 1), when we celebrate the beauty and importance of our coral reef ecosystem!