Jul 302013

By: Hannah MasonVIERS 022 VIERS 023

One of the main attractions of St. John, and a favorite activity for campers of all ages, is snorkeling.  The snorkeling sites here are made so amazing by the coral reefs around the island and the sea creatures that inhabit those reefs.  Because of the abundance of reefs around the island, a common topic of education to campers and other visitors at the Virgin Islands Environmental Resource Station (VIERS) is the importance of reefs and how to protect them.
Many people know coral reefs as simply something pretty to look at underwater, but the tourism attracted by reefs is actually very important to the economy of these coastal communities and is worth hundreds of billions of dollars per year worldwide.  Coral reefs also provide homes for many fish and invertebrates, about a quarter of all ocean life, which in turn provide food for coastal communities and medicinal compounds that can be used worldwide.  In addition, reefs also help to protect coastlines from harsh weather, which is especially important with the changing global climate.
Unfortunately, coral reefs around the world are getting less and less healthy and even dying out.  One major source of their decline is pollution.  Since the industrial revolution, more and more carbon dioxide has been in the atmosphere.  This carbon dioxide gets pushed into the ocean as well, making the water more acidic.  The increased acidity damages the coral and inhibits its regeneration.  Pollution of things like fertilizer and oil is also harmful, as these chemicals facilitate the blooming of algae, which can block the coral from getting sunlight or even carry diseases to it.  Runoff from seaside construction and deforestation of mangroves also blocks sunlight from the coral.  People also damage the coral directly by collecting it for use in jewelry and aquariums, by spraying it with cyanide in order to catch fish, and even by handling it too roughly while snorkeling.
Although this all sounds like bad news, there are steps that we can take to reduce damage to coral reefs.  Most importantly, people should be educated about proper handling of reefs (don’t touch them).  Cyanide fishing should be banned, and luckily has already been banned in the Philippines, Australia, Hawaii, and the Caribbean.  Protection of mangroves and fish species that live in coral will also help, although some species like the lionfish are harmful to the reefs and should be fished for more.  Unfortunately, however, major sources of reef damage like global warming and coastal development will require much more drastic action to be reduced.

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