The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef system in the world. It is located off the coast of Australia and covers 344,400km², approximately the size of Germany. The Great Barrier Reef is home to fish, worms, sharks, rays, coral, whales, jellyfish, mollusks, dolphins, and many other animals. It is also a vital resource for almost 500 million people. However, the largest living structure in the world is facing the threat of extinction due to climate change.
Last year, many of the coral structures in the Great Barrier Reef were bleached because of rising water temperatures. When water temperatures get too high coral becomes stressed and begins to let go of the algae it keeps inside. The algae provides the coral with 90% of its energy and it also is what makes the coral bright and colorful. Unless temperatures return to normal relatively quickly, the algae will not return and the coral may die. Last year, the rising temperatures of climate change, combined with the warmer waters during an El Niño year, pushed the water temperatures above the limit for coral.
After coral dies there are many effects that start to move up the food chain. First, seaweed begins to thrive without the coral. The seaweed uses the rotting coral and algae as fertilizer and tends to grow quickly, blocking out light and invading the habitats of fish. Since the coral and seaweed are in competition for light, the seaweed begins to have an advantage over the coral. When the seaweed takes over the coral, the fish living there are forced to move, as they no longer have a source of food or shelter. The other fish in the area that feed off smaller fish are forced to move as well. The birds that eat fish have also just lost their source of food. There are almost half a billion people, including 70 Indigenous groups, who rely on reefs for protection from waves, food, and income. The Great Barrier Reef is one of the most necessary structures in the environment, therefore it is imperative that we need to work hard to protect it.
It is important to remember that the Great Barrier Reef is not dead, yet. We can still save it if everyone works hard to stop climate change, decrease pollution, and end illegal fishing. Even if you do not live anywhere near Australia you can still make a big difference with some simple changes to your daily life!
Some ways you can help the reef include:
- Research the fertilizers used on your plants and lawn (fertilizers can run into bodies of water and feed seaweed, which contributes to coral reef destruction)
- If you are a scuba diver or snorkeler, make sure to avoid touching the coral or anchoring a boat to the coral
- Conserve water to reduce the amount of polluted water that goes back into the ecosystem
- Reduce fossil fuels use
- If you decide to visit Australia try to support businesses that are working to protect the coral reefs and only go on reef tours that are eco-certified
- Do not litter by the beaches
- Volunteer to clean up litter by the beaches or coral reefs
- Use reusable bags instead of single use plastic bags
- Purchase local and organic produce (herbicides can kill off the symbiotic algae that lives in coral)
- If you eat seafood, make sure to only buy sustainable seafood
- Use energy efficient appliances and lightbulbs in your home
- If you buy a pet fish or have a home aquarium, make sure that the fish was not taken from a coral reef and do not use live rock in an aquarium (the process to harvest living rock destroys the marine habitat)
With some simple changes, we can all help protect and restore the Great Barrier Reef!
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