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Scientists And Their Role in Corals’ And Their Reefs Survival

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Corals belonging to the animal kingdom, are in the same phylum as Anemones and Jellyfish. This phylum called Cnidaria, is known for having stinging structures in their tentacles, alternate life cycles between asexual sessile polyps (anemone-like and soft bodied) and sexual free-swimming medusas and lastly their mouth/anus leading to where digestion, circulation, and gas exchange takes place. Corals also serve as the foundation of the ocean food chain and offer shelter for numerous aquatic organisms.

While corals are members of the animal kingdom, an organism that lives in symbiosis with it is a part of Kingdom Protista which can be found in Unit Three, Lesson Three. Falling into the plant-like protist category, these organisms contain chlorophyll and are photosynthetic. Corals have often been confused with rocks however, they are really made of living animal tissue that also includes algae. This plant-like protist serves as one of the corals food sources and also positively influences a corals health.

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Because algae photosynthesises inside of the polyps to provide food in exchange for protection (Greenpeace USA), we come across another unit and lesson that is associated with Rebecca Albright’s article. Unit Five Lesson Two, explains the process of photosynthesis and how it provides for plants and other organisms. This is the process that transforms light energy into chemical energy. Photosynthesis occurs in the chloroplast and is divided into two phases called the Light Reactions and the Calvin Cycle. The Light Reactions take place inside the thylakoid membranes which are inside the chloroplasts. Solar energy is then used to divide water into NADP+ and ADP and Pi are used to produce high energy compounds ATP and NADPH which are used to power the Calvin Cycle. After this split, the water that entered exits as an oxygen waste product. The Calvin Cycle then occurs in the stroma of a chloroplast and takes the high energy compounds from the Light Reactions and carbon dioxide to power the cycle and produce sugars. The sugars then depart the chloroplast and travel into the mitochondria to be used for cellular respiration.

The next link SBI3U has with my article of choice is in the Fourth Unit about Evolution. As the article explains the current conditions of coral reefs and how they are tackling the restoration process, it is evident that there has been a rapid loss of reefs. In only the last 30 years, 50 percent of corals have been lost globally and it is predicted that by 2050 only 10 percent will survive. A large number of reefs have low genetic diversity which suppresses their ability to produce offspring. Scientists now are pursuing ways to maximize genetic variety in reefs and restore enough of the population in order for the reef to naturally recuperate and become more adaptable to environmental change. Albright then adds that through integrating both sexual and asexual restoration, corals are able to increase their genetic variation which also strengthens their ability to withstand environmental challenges that they may face in the future. Lesson Five of Unit Four talks about Mechanisms of Evolution and Their Effect on Population. One of the factors that changes allele frequencies in populations is called the Bottleneck Effect. Factors that reduce the size of a population are starvation, disease, human activities and natural disasters. These challenges have reduced the population and have caused the gene pool to lose its diversity. In turn, the sudden population decrease causes gene pool changes creating a “bottleneck” in the population size. An example of this that Albright reviews are the Caribbean reefs, “dominated by a single clone, and both science and history teach us that relying on low genetic variation, particularly in times of environmental change, can lead to disaster.”.

The last parallel found between my article and SBI3U is also from Unit Four however, comes from Lesson Two. Going over how scientists plan to rehabilitate reefs again, Albright writes about how one scientist named Madeleine Van Oppen from The University of Melbourne is currently studying selective breeding for the reefs. Lesson Two of Unit Four titled Natural and Artificial Selection, discusses the innate and artificial process of organisms changing over numerous generations. Within every species, a specific amount of genetic diversity is available to each organism. Some of which are more vulnerable to bleaching and disease than other. By using artificial selection, which involves human intervention, resistant coral colonies can be distinguished and breed. Artificial selection or selective breeding are forms of biotechnology (the use of technology and organisms) which intend to produce a beneficial outcome. By using artificial selection through manipulating the corals, a “super breed” of corals can be born to tolerate bleaching, disease, and ultimately pass these genes down through generations.

There’s an old saying that goes, “there are two sides to every story” which, in this case fits perfectly with the circumstances. It’s no secret that the coral reefs are dying. Scientists and environmental organizations around the world are taking drastic measures to protect and educate people on coral reefs, their importance and ways they can help. In as early as 2004, articles and studies about the coral reef bleaching began to surface, warning and educating people about the future downfall of the reefs. For the past 14 years, we’ve watched the coral reefs gradually die. We’ve also watched numerous conservation organizations and efforts raised to protect the coral reefs. What we haven’t seen often on the other hand, are people against preservation efforts.

Conservation efforts globally are focused on a number of different resources and are tackled in an assortment ways. Each resource has its own features that may need more attention than others. However, all conservation efforts aim to preserve and protect its “cause” with whatever it takes. Currently, there are 15,324 marine protected areas, 7.26% of ocean covered by the protected areas and 26,302,971 km2 of total protected areas. Conservation in coral reefs around the world have gotten more creative in the past few years and are focusing on more taking action and than only passing the message along. Currently off the coast of Florida, there is an underwater forest of plastic trees with corals hanging from branches. This submerged coral nursery is being used to grow corals that can later be planted onto dying reefs. Nurseries and coral gardens around the world exist to transplant and revive dead reefs by replanting baby corals on them. While there has been success in speeding up the growing process of corals, the reefs cannot solely rely on “transplantation” to resuscitate once again.

On the southern coast of Singapore, two coral “gardens” that are under the care of eight marine biologist “gardeners” from the National University of Singapore’s Tropical Marine Science Institute are nurturing pocket sized pieces of coral. These offshore nurseries on Kusu and Lazarus Island have been prepared with stiff mesh nets and PVC pipes. When the coral has grown to an appropriate size (normally after six months), scientists transport them back to their native reefs using a marine epoxy. Tan states that in 2013, the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore kicked off the project and since then more than 800 coral particles have been transported and 80% of the corals have survived. Scientists on both islands observe the reefs for up to two years monitoring growth.

However, not everyone agrees that humans involvement in conservation has been beneficial to the environment. Rosaleen Duffy, an international politics professor at Manchester University, author and world expert on ethical dimensions of wildlife conservation and management has published a book called, “Nature Crime: How We’re Getting Conservation Wrong”. This book is backed on 15 years of research, local communities, tour operators, government officials and 300 interviews with conservation professionals. Duffy states that, “Conservation does not constitute neat win-win scenarios. Schemes come with rules and regulations that criminalise communities, dressed up in the language of partnership and participation, coupled with promises of new jobs in the tourism industry,”. Through this book, Duffy aims to educate and environmentalists to inspect the cause and effect of conservation so that healthier procedures for animals and people can evolve and be successful. She goes on to say that, “They assume that the picture-perfect landscape or the silver Caribbean beach is a natural feature. This is very far from the truth. Tourist playgrounds are manufactured environments, usually cleared of people. Similarly, hotel construction in tropical areas can result in clearing ecologically important mangroves or beach building which harms coral reefs”. A WWF-UK spokesperson adds that ecotourism is beneficial and has positively affected communities economically, socially and added biodiversity benefits. With carefully planned out preservation strategies, more can be done to not only help the environment and animals but also the locals and tourists, that the preservation areas affect.

In 1998, a isolated reef on the northwest coast of Australia was heavily damaged by coral bleaching. The water temperatures rose to 2 degrees celsius above average and remained this way for several weeks resulting in the death of 70-90% of the corals living in the reef. James Gilmour, a researcher at the Australian Institute of Marine Science and his team monitored the reef after its bleaching and saw that the surviving corals were not reproducing and none of the coral embryos from neighboring reefs were passing by. The reefs predicted recovery was decades but surprisingly, after only six years the remaining corals fully developed and began reproducing. Gilmour states that, “They recovered, and the larvae they produced settled and survived, at much higher rates than is often reported ” and by 2012, the reef returned to its authentic nature. This study hints that when reefs are separated from human activity they can become more resilient because human activity as we have seen can harm them greatly. However, it can also imply that regional regulations put into place can help in safeguarding the reefs. Main closes with Gilmour saying that, “Managing local conditions is a tangible way to maximize the resilience of coral reefs while the more difficult problem of addressing the causes of climate change are resolved”.

Between the two “styles” of conservation, there is no right or wrong answer. Plenty of coral reef conservation organizations exist and continue to practice and do their part to save the reefs. On the other hand, the “leave nature alone” conservationists are a smaller group but persist to make their voice heard. Both are striving towards the same goal for the coral reefs however, in different approaches. It is more evident however, that more observable progress can be seen in the hands on method of conservation. Many corals have been cared for and transplanted back into the ocean where they are thriving while the “hands off” conservation technique requires time and frequent monitoring.

284,300 square kilometers of the ocean floor is covered by coral reefs. While this number is seemingly large, it pales to the actual area of the ocean, which is 360 million square kilometers. While coral reefs equate to less than 1% of the ocean floor, losing something that simple can create a ripple effect in our environment, society and economy larger than anyone could anticipate.

The extraordinary diversity that can be found in the oceans is home to about one-quarter of aquatic organisms. Reefs provide shelter and food to hundreds of species including commercially valuable ones such as lobster, snapper and grouper fish (NOAA Fisheries, 2018). The following examples of how aquatic organisms and coral reefs work together to keep the ocean healthy, are just a small part of the big picture. Parrotfish are known for their role in creating white sand beaches. In order for them to reach the algae, they use their teeth to grind at the coral and once the algae has been eaten the rest of their coral skeleton is grinded and excreted as sand. There are also animals like sea sponges seen as primitive however, supply homes for marine worms, young fish and crustaceans. These animals also act as “reusers” by using the nutrients they filter in from water and releasing them as waste and feed for the reefs. When talking about reef survival, there is not much acknowledgment towards the fish and what will happen to their existence. In 1996, an 8 year study done in four marine reserves in Tamane Puli Conservation Area, Kimbe Bay, Papua New Guinea began to observe what turned into a long-term coral reef decline. The scientists aimed to see what coral decline meant for not just the coral and its habitat itself but how this would impact the fish. To effectively conduct the study, the scientists estimated how much of the reef fish population only fed on coral tissue and how much lived in “partnership” with branching corals. By 2003 over 75% of reef fish species decreased in abundance and 50% had fallen to less than half of their original numbers. The scientists then closed their article by stating that various rare coral-specialists became locally extinct and that fish biodiversity is at risk where permanent reef deterioration occurs and warning that, “marine reserves will not always be sufficient to ensure their survival”.

With the predicted “death” of reefs in 2050, the corals will not be the only ones to die. Masses of fish around the globe will be dragged into extinction leaving the ocean to turn into a barren wasteland. However, if there is success and efficiency found in transplanting coral reefs the “death” of the ocean can be avoided. It is known that humans have mastered growing corals at only the local level. Senior scientist David Vaughan and team from Florida’s Mote Marine Laboratory has flourished at the art of growing corals. Producing 600 corals in an afternoon and succeeding with half a dozen species has taken over 12 years of trial and error (Albright, 2018). This win however has large challenges ahead of it. Albright discloses that restoring reefs over hundreds to thousands of square kilometers not only requires a complex plan but a fat check as well. To replant the 2300 km Great Barrier Reef soley, would cost and estimated $200 billion with pieces selling at $5.

As coral reefs provide shelter and protection to aquatic organisms, they also supply protection to coastlines around the world. A meta-analysis done for coral reefs globally studied just how much wave energy corals absorb. The researchers then found out that through breaking waves, coral reefs absorb an average of 97% of wave energy and that wave energy ranges from calm breezy conditions to stronger hurricane-force waves. Because coral reefs absorb such a high percentage of wave energy, their disappearance would heavily affect beaches, sea-front properties, and other ecosystems such as seagrass meadows and mangroves. Without the defence of coral reefs, tropical areas would have no shielding from tsunamis or storms.

A study done on the coast of western Australia proved to show reefs contribution to protecting shorelines. In 2015, a category 3 tropical cyclone called Olwyn wreaked havoc on homes, business and cities. Dr. Cuttler from the university of Western Australia studied Ningaloo reef which protected the shoreline during the cyclone. His team concluded that because of the shape (geomorphology) of the reef – steep forereef slope, shallow lagoon and shallow reef crest the shorelines of the affected areas stayed unharmed and in good condition. While other coastlines and beaches without reefs were found to be ten times more eroded than the Ningaloo beach.


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