Corals are among the most important animals in the ocean. They provide marine life with food, safe havens from predators and areas for reproduction, in addition to the other multitude of roles they play in the daily existence of millions of people around the world. More than 5,000 coral species (hard and soft corals) can be found in shallow and deep ocean waters.
Chuck Savall / Marine Photobank
A coral begins life as a larva that floats through the water until it finds a hard surface on which it can attach and grow into a polyp. Although coral polyps are only a few millimeters in diameter, once settled, they reproduce, living side-by-side, to form, in some cases, very large coral colonies. The colony of polyps forms the very thin living veneer of the coral itself.
Hard corals resemble rocks, boulders or tree trunks and as they grow, the polyps lay down a hard layer (calcium carbonate) to form the reef. Reefs grow in a similar fashion to the way a tree grows, layer by layer, moving the living surface of the reef upward and seaward. Soft corals can look like tree braches or fans and have special flexible skeletons, but do not form true reefs. Both types are currently under threat from environmental changes and human impacts.
As slow-growing organisms, corals often take years, decades or even centuries to recover from a disturbance, further intensifying the effects of environmental or human-induced impacts. Such factors exacerbate the stresses that climate change can put on corals, increasing the animals' susceptibility to disease, storm damage and competition from other organisms. Moreover, corals are very sensitive to changes in water temperature; the rate at which ocean temperatures are currently rising may be too fast for corals to adapt. In addition, excessive carbon dioxide from the Earth’s atmosphere that is taken up by the ocean is leading to increasingly more acidic waters; this inhibits the growth of the calcite skeletons that corals and other marine organisms need to survive.
Shallow-water tropical reefs are suffering from many environmental impacts, including the effects of climate change, pollution, overfishing of animals that live on the reefs, and removal of the reefs for use in home décor objects as well as the curio and aquarium trade. One-third of shallow water, reef-building species are threatened with extinction, making them one of the most endangered animal groups on the planet.
Devin Harvey / Marine Photobank
Deep-sea corals are also under threat from ocean acidification and destructive fishing practices. Of particular note in the deep sea are the red, pink, black corals, where the biggest threat is extraction to meet consumer demand for jewelry and other decorative objects. These deep-sea corals do not build true reefs; their polyps form and maintain individual colonies. The red and pink coral species (Corallium rubrum) found in the Mediterranean has been used as such for centuries. Many livelihoods and industries in Italy as well as in Asian countries such as Taiwan and Japan depend on red coral. Unfortunately, populations have declined in recent years (since the 1980s, the amount that fishermen have collected has declined between 60 to 80 percent). Even now, the Italian coral industry takes 70 to 80 percent of its coral from the Pacific region. More stringent local management and international trade oversight is required in order to ensure these species and the livelihoods that depend on them survive.
Too Precious To Wear is a SeaWeb campaign working closely with the home décor, fashion and jewelry industries to create a demand for coral conservation. Influential designers act as coral spokespeople by using coral as inspiration and encouraging consumers to purchase only coral-inspired rather than coral-derived jewelry. You can help by signing Too Precious to Wear's pledge to conserve coral.
The campaign is working to achieve international trade protection for red and pink coral through an Appendix II listing under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). We are also supporting the reauthorization of the U.S. Coral Reef Conservation Act.
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