Why Coral Reefs Matter, in Curaçao and Beyond

by Brianna Connelly
Courtesy of Mark Vermeij

Courtesy of Mark Vermeij

As everyone knows, our documentary is about the coral reefs in Curaçao, however it is important to consider.. Why coral reefs? And Why Curaçao?  Coral reefs are one of the most valuable ecosystems on Earth.  As we learned in oceans episode of “Earth a New Wild,”  coral reefs make up less than 1 percent of the ocean but support more than half of all marine life!

Pollution, overfishing, coastal development, careless tourism and other activities, combined with climate change, can steadily degrade reefs — and thus one of the planet’s storehouses of biological diversity.

Reefs also have important economic value to humans; they provide coastal communities with resources and services worth billions of dollars per year. Some estimates find that over 1 billion people depend on reefs for food. 

They also protect these communities close to the shoreline from waves, storms, and floods.

Some may ask, “Why should we all be worried about coral reefs, particularly when many of us live very far from the tropical oceans?”

As with rain forests, coral reefs have been found to produce compounds that can be the basis for new drugs to treat cancer, arthritis, human bacterial infections, heart disease, viruses, and other ailments. 

For marine biologists, the ongoing damage to reefs has been frustrating and heartbreaking — like watching a living museum slowly crumble.

Coral reefs grow very slowly – anywhere from 0.3 centimeters to 10 centimeters per year, the reefs we see today have been growing over the past 5,000 to 10,000 years, therefore they are destroyed much more quickly then they grow. 

At the same time reefs are being built by coral organisms, they are also being broke down by bio-erosion. The balance of reef growth and destruction determines whether a reef as a whole increases or decreases. The Curaçao coral reefs are known to be some of the best preserved in the Caribbean, which makes this island the perfect location for our film. Curaçao’s reefs have stayed surprisingly healthy despite human development on the island — so far.

A healthy reef ecosystem is usually buzzing with activity and vibrant colors. It is habitat for dozens of different species of fish and invertebrates. Parrotfish and other herbivorous fish are a particularly important sign of healthy coral reefs because they help keep algae populations down. Algae often competes with the corals for sunlight, nutrients and space. Sea urchins also act as an algae lawn mower.

awa blancu 30 oct 2008 (31)

Coral reefs that lack sea urchins have gradually gone into decline with uncontrolled algae growth. Another sign that a coral reef is healthy is the presence of large fish, including predators like sharks. Unfortunately it’s far too rare these days to see such reefs.

The presence of giant clams also signals reef health because these bivalves are highly sensitive to changes in water pH (which is declining toward acidity as carbon dioxide levels rise) and temperature.

Lastly, the absence of coral bleaching and coral diseases such as white spot on corals indicate a healthy reef. Good balance between various varieties of coral, both soft and hard, signifies a thriving healthy reef.

These are all signs that our team will look out for when filming in Curaçao and we cannot wait to see this all in front of our cameras.

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