Corals are found all over the world in shallow, tropical waters and on the deep, dark ocean floor. Despite their appearance, corals are neither rocks nor plants; corals are living animals.
Coral reefs support 25 percent of all known marine fish. As one of the most complex ecosystems on the planet, coral reefs are home to more than 4,000 different species of fish, and almost 5,000 species of corals, in addition to thousands of other plants and animals.
Corals Are Important to the Economy
In 2003, WWF, a global conservation organization, calculated that corals provide a global total of US$30 billion net economic benefits from fisheries, tourism, coastal protection, and biodiversity. In 1997, a group of researchers working out of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis calculated that the global value of ecological services provided by corals (such as nursery areas for fish) equaled roughly US$375 billion per year.
Corals Feed People
Fish and other life associated with coral reefs feed billions of people. As many as one billion people in Asia alone depend on fish caught in coastal waters dominated by coral reefs. People from island nations such as Fiji and Micronesia obtain anywhere from 80 to 98 percent of their animal protein from marine life supported by the reefs.
Corals May Offer Cures
Researchers estimate that the prospect of finding a new drug in the sea, especially among coral reef species, may be 300 to 400 times more likely than isolating one from terrestrial locations. The most well known pharmaceutical using chemicals from corals is AZT, a compound used to treat HIV infections. Another, Curacin A, is a leading anti-cancer drug candidate first derived from a bacterium found on Caribbean coral reefs. A further anti-cancer compound (bryostatin-1) was developed from a common coral reef species called a bryozoan, and is currently worth up to US$1 billion per year. Bamboo corals and other species of porous corals provide an important substance in orthopedic bone implants.
Corals Protect Islands and Coastlines
Coral reefs can protect coastal communities from natural disasters. A study of the 2004 tsunami in Asia showed that the presence of healthy coral could have reduced the tsunami’s effects by 50 percent. In parts of Sri Lanka with a history of heavy coral mining, the tsunami had higher waves, reached further inland, and resulted in more severe damage. Nearby areas with healthy reefs showed significantly less damage.
For more information see: Corals in the Red: The State of Corals and Recommendations for Recovery (PDF)