Thursday 31st July, 2008

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The year of the reefs

  • Coral comes in a wide range of shapes.
  • Coral reefs are warm, clear, shallow-ocean habitats that are rich in life.
  • The Great Barrier Reef, off the coast of northeast Australia, is the biggest coral reef in the world.
  • Major threats to reefs are water pollution from sew-age, agriculture runoff, dredging, careless collecting of specimens, and sedimen-tation.

The International Year of the Reef (IYOR) 2008, organised by the International Coral Reef Initiative, aims to not only raise awareness but moreover encourage action regarding the value of coral reefs and associated ecosystems, threats to their health and management solutions, and facilitate public involvement in coral reef conservation-related activities.

The first IYOR was initiated in 1997, in response to the increasing threats and loss of coral reefs and associated ecosystems, like mangroves and sea grasses.

When we think of coral reef it is easy to visualise sitting next to other vacationers in a glass-bottom boat somewhere off the coast staring in amazement at the vibrant reds, lush yellows, fluorescent greens of an all-to-gether colourful underwater world.

Coral comes in a wide range of shapes. For instance, branching corals have primary and secondary branches. Sub-massive corals look like fingers or clumps of cigars. The table-like structures and often fused branches are descriptive of table corals.

Elkhorn coral has large, flattened branches. Foliose corals have broad plate-like portions rising in whorl-like patterns. Massive corals are ball-shaped or boulder-like and may be as small as an egg or as large as a house. Mushroom corals resemble the unattached tops of mushrooms.

Furthermore, there are two types of coral, hard coral and soft coral. Hard corals like brain coral and elkhorn coral have hard, limestone skeletons which form the basis of coral reefs. Soft corals like sea fingers and sea whips do not build reefs.

Coral reefs are warm, clear, shallow-ocean habitats that are rich in life. The reef's massive structure is formed from coral polyps, tiny animals that live in colonies; when coral polyps die, they leave behind a hard, stony, branching structure made of limestone.

While the glass-bottom boat is hovering over the reef, the guide would explain that coral provides shelter for many animals in this complex habitat, including blacktip reef sharks, sponges, groupers, clown fish, eels, parrotfish, snapper, jellyfish, sea stars, crabs, shrimp, lobsters, turtles, sea snakes, snails, octopuses, and clams. Birds also feast on coral reef animals.

It is interesting to know that coral reefs develop in shallow, warm water, usually near land, and mostly in the tropics. Corals prefer temperatures between 21° C and 30° C.

The Great Barrier Reef, off the coast of northeast Australia, measuring over 1,257 miles, is the largest coral reef in the world. There are coral reefs off the eastern coast of Africa, the southern coast of India, in the Red Sea, and off the coasts of northeast and northwest Australia and on to Polynesia.

There are also coral reefs off the coast of Florida, in the Caribbean, and down to Brazil, yet all cover less than one per cent of the Earth’s surface.

Research indicates that coral reefs, a natural barrier protecting coastal communities and a food source, yield a total value of over US$100 billion a year worldwide.

In the field of medicine, 50 per cent of current cancer medication research focuses on marine or-ganisms found on coral reefs.

Statistics show that coastal tourism, primarily to coral reef destinations, accounts for US$385 billion in revenue, which is 85 per cent of all tourism. Worldwide, tourism generates 27 times more income than fisheries. 

What we should be aware of, however, is that many coral reefs are dying. According to the Status of Coral Reefs of the World: 2004, 20 per cent of the world’s coral reefs have been destroyed beyond repair.

Major threats to coral reefs are water pollution from sewage, agricultural runoff, dredging off the coast, careless collecting of coral specimens, and sedimentation.

Silt or sand from construction or mining projects muddies the waters of a reef and kills coral, which needs light to live. The threats may continue to build up as global temperature rises.

n Gloria de Mees is the sustainable tourism director of the Association of Caribbean States. The opinions expressed are not necessarily

the official views of the ACS.

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