Parvati Magazine for MAPS, Marine Arctic Peace Sanctuary, community, Melanie McField

Coral Reefs, the Rainbows of the Sea, Give Food and Protection to Billions. But They’re in Trouble.

Image: Ian Drysdale the Honduras HRI coordinator (left) and Melanie McField (right, centre) in the Banco Cordelia, Roatan, Honduras.

Under the ocean’s surface, extraordinary lifeforms pervade the vast waters and seabed. Often referred to as “rainbows of the sea”, brilliant and intricate coral reefs shape the architecture of marine ecosystems and our world. Yet, for years, scientists have been warning that our oceans are under threat like never before, including reefs. The Healthy Reefs for Healthy People Initiative (HRI) has been working for over a decade to track, manage and oversee the protection and health of the Mesoamerican reef ecosystem (MAR) in the Caribbean Sea off the shores of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. This month, we spoke to Melanie McField, founder and Director of HRI, about why coral reefs are priceless to our planet and deserve our concerted efforts to protect them.

Parvati Magazine: What is the importance of coral reefs to ocean ecosystems and nearby land? What do we see happening to our coastlines and islands now they are deteriorating?

Melanie McField: Coral reefs are the heart of the oceans. They cover approximately 1 percent of the seafloor but support about 25 percent of known marine species. They are valuable – estimated between $30 billion and $172 billion US each year. A billion people worldwide rely on them for food. Some islands would not exist if it wasn’t for living, growing reefs protecting them from storms and erosion, and providing the carbonate for beach sands. In many countries, reef-based tourism is the mainstay of their economy. Reef organisms have provided chemicals for treating human diseases, with many more potential pharmaceuticals now under study. If we lose the reefs, we lose all of these benefits and potential benefits.

What Causes Coral Bleaching?

Parvati Magazine: We often hear about coral bleaching. What causes corals to turn white? Is it an issue in the Mesoamerican reef? What are the ramifications of coral bleaching for the entire ecosystem?

Melanie McField: Coral bleaching is a general reaction of corals to stress, akin to vomiting in a human. There can be many different reasons, but increased ocean temperature is the only one that has affected major areas of our reefs. The Mesoamerican reef has bleached more than a half dozen times, leading to some coral death, but not as pronounced as the infamous event on the Great Barrier Reef. Bleached corals also become more susceptible to disease – which is our major concern at the moment. The Stony Coral Tissue Loss disease that began in Florida almost five years ago has now spread to many other parts of the Caribbean, including the MAR, and it is a killer.

Parvati Magazine: Is it possible for reefs and entire ecosystems to fully regenerate after enduring so much stress? If so, what does it take?

Melanie McField: It is possible, but it takes time… lots of it. Most corals (especially the species in the Caribbean) grow slowly. It also requires that the problematic conditions to be rectified: whether a fishing moratorium, a reduction of coastal development, or construction of a new and improved sewage treatment plant if the stress is due to these things. It will take massive political will fueled by public demand and outrage that our behavior and choices are killing this most complex, diverse and exquisitely beautiful ecosystem on earth.

The Challenges Facing Marine Protected Areas

Parvati Magazine: While the majority of the MAR region has some form of protection, only a small amount of it is off limits to commercial fishing. Why not all? What is needed?

Melanie McField: Yes, 54 percent of the MAR is within declared marine protected areas (MPAs) but only three percent is fully protected (no fishing). The process of declaring and enforcing no fishing replenishment zones is challenging. [There] seems to [be a] belief that the ocean is infinite and we humans cannot possibly deplete it. Marine scientists need to inform both the high-level policy makers to pass these laws and the community-based fishers to agree to the enforcement. Our data shows that it does work to increase fish biomass and reseed the fishing areas. But three percent can’t effectively reseed 97 percent—it’s just not sufficient.

Parvati Magazine: What measures can someone far away from reefs like the MAR do to help?

Melanie McField: They can financially support reef conservation programs. Small countries, home to most reefs, do not have sufficient government funds for much conservation. Eating lower on the food chain, investing in energy conservation, using green energy and transportation will help. They can buy sustainably harvested or grown seafood, never undersized or out of season. If they travel to reef areas, they can support eco-friendly tourism operators. Sharing this knowledge with others is important. There is very little time left.

Melanie McField, author and marine scientist within the Smithsonian Institute, is the Founder and Director of the Healthy Reefs for Healthy People Initiative (HRI), a multi-institutional effort of over 70 partner organizations that tracks the health of the Mesoamerican Reef Ecosystem in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.