World Oceans Day 2016: Time is running out for our coral reefs

The ocean regulates climate, feeds millions of people, produces most of the oxygen we breathe, is home to an incredible array of species and provides us with cures for diseases. However, due to many threats facing the ocean, such as climate change, time is running out for marine ecosystems such as coral reefs.

Coral reefs are the most diverse ecosystem in the ocean, but unfortunately they are declining. South Africa has beautiful coral reefs with high fish and coral diversity situated along the Maputaland coast.

Coral reefs are being bleached due to global warming

Although bleaching has occurred on our reefs with 13 percent of corals affected, this is considerably less than other parts of the world like Australia's Great Barrier Reef for example, where up to 80 percent of corals on certain reefs have suffered bleaching.

South Africa’s reefs are subtropical so sea temperatures aren’t as high as those experienced by tropical reefs and our reefs are also deeper, which has largely protected them from severe bleaching.

Corals are tiny animals that live in colonies that form coral reefs. These coral reefs are critically important to humans because not only do they provide shelter to 25 percent of all known marine species, but they protect shorelines from ocean waves and erosion; they represent the medicine chests of the sea and generate millions through tourism annually.

Tiny algae provide corals with 90 percent of their nutritional needs but when sea temperatures are too high, the symbiotic relationship between the coral and algae breaks down and the algae are ejected by the coral, leaving the corals ghostly white and literally starving.

Corals may recover if the temperature stress is short-lived, but will die if it is prolonged. The loss of coral reefs has huge implications for ocean and human health. Let’s all do what we can to remain conscious of our environmental footprints and live with the ocean in mind.

Since we all tend to be forgetful I recommend setting up reminders if you're serious about wanting to make changes to reduce your personal impact on climate change. Here are some ideas that will help:

  • Don’t overfill the kettle – what you don’t use will only go cold again
  • Turn off appliances before going to sleep at night
  • Make meat a treat – the meat industry contributes 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions
  • Walk more – people don’t emit pollution when they walk
  • Take short, sharp showers – (every minute in the shower uses 10 litres of water)

Dr Camilla Floros with a sample of bleachd coral and an egg timer that represents time running out for our beautiful coral reefs

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