The True Human Impact on Coral Reefs

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The myriad ways homo sapiens negatively impact the environment include carbon emissions, plastic pollution, and deforestation. One of the worst things that human action causes is the widespread destruction of coral reefs.

Human impacts on coral reefs are devastating. Coral reefs are breathtakingly beautiful ecosystems that harbor a stunning diversity of aquatic life and are home to over 9 million species. 

Because of this, they’re often called “the rainforests of the sea.” They’re also called “the canaries of the ocean” because they serve as biological gauges that can detect the slightest changes in environmental conditions. This is just like the canaries that miners of yore carried with them underground to warn of deadly gasses.

As we sacrifice this rich biological complexity in the name of technological progress, we condemn many species to extinction. In Southeast Asia alone, over 80% of all reefs are endangered from unsustainable fishing practices and the toxic encroachment of civilization on the coasts.

Where are reefs found?

You’ll find reefs on tropical coasts all along the equator. As we discuss the true human impact on coral reefs, it’s crucial to remember that coral is the organism, and coral reefs are the ecosystem.

Causes of coral reef destruction

Climate change

Climate change is the single most significant threat to coral reefs. 

As temperatures across the world’s oceans rise precipitously, mass coral bleaching events and disease outbreaks are becoming increasingly common. To make matters worse, the ocean absorbs excess atmospheric carbon dioxide.

This has had the effect of reducing reef-building calcification rates because of decreased pH levels in seawater. 

This insidious process is known as ocean acidification. Climate change also affects coral reefs because of changes in the frequency and intensity of tropical storms and altered ocean circulation patterns.

Unsustainable fishing practices

The harvesting of resources from the ocean is proceeding at a seemingly exponential rate. 

This has dramatically altered the delicate ecological balance of marine communities. For example, some organisms that were once kept in check by large reef fish populations now proliferate wildly with no end in sight.

Fishing practices become more unsustainable as fish populations diminish, and many fishers use fish traps indiscriminately. One of the most damaging of all fishing practices is bottom trawling – where fishers use massive, weighted-down nets to scrape the bottom of the ocean floor.

Rollers drag across the reefs, tearing up surfaces and causing massive destruction. Instead of a thriving reef and a vibrant ecosystem, all that remains is barren rock. Most reefs won’t recover for years – if not decades.

Cyanide fishing is another way that reefs get damaged. Fishers put sodium cyanide in the water to stun the fish, allowing them to be caught much more quickly. 

This practice causes the death of millions of fish and coral each year. According to the World Wildlife Fund, a square meter of reef is annihilated for every fish caught using this unsustainable method.

Dynamite fishing is yet another way reefs are destroyed. Fishers set off explosives, killing tons of organisms in the area and indiscriminately ruining valuable habitats.


One of the greatest threats to coral reefs is rampant urban development, causing vast amounts of sediments to drain into waterways during storms. 

All this runoff carries sewage and fertilizer into the ocean, allowing algae to proliferate because of the high concentrations of nutrients. This overabundance of algae devastates coral populations.

Sedimentation and an increase in turbidity from all the pollution also reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the coral, killing it or significantly curtailing its growth.


Coral reefs tend to attract tourists by the boatload, providing the local economy with a much-needed boost. Unfortunately, the increase in ecotourism is often accompanied by a subsequent rise in reef damage.

That’s because snorkelers and scuba divers can cause damage by trampling the corals, and boats cause harm by dragging their anchors and inadvertently spreading invasive species. 

Tourists are also one of the biggest culprits when it comes to littering. Local governments can preserve these sensitive habitats by carefully managing their eco-tourism.

Coral mining

The heavy demands of the aquarium and souvenir trade cause irresponsible collectors to harvest massive quantities of fish and invertebrates from the planet’s coral reefs. Coral mining can include widespread blasting of reefs with dynamite and large-scale manual removal of coral. 

Greedy collectors grab coral reef species from the ocean and trade them in international markets for use as traditional medicines, limestone for construction, and “live rock.” The latter is coral rubble with attached living organisms — something that’s used ornamentally.

Many of the creatures collected don’t survive long because they’re not properly cared for. Some nations have banned reckless coral harvesting, but it will continue without consistent enforcement.

Impact on coral reef species

Reefs are home to thousands of aquatic species, many of whom rely on the reefs for survival. For example, the hawksbill sea turtle makes its habitat in coral reefs. When the reefs are annihilated, they no longer have a home or food source.

Another species that rely on coral reefs is the butterflyfish. They hide from predators in coral crevices when they want to get some sleep, and coral is their primary food source.

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What you can do

Even if you live hundreds of miles away from the nearest ocean, there’s plenty you can do to reduce coral reef destruction. While much harmful activity occurs in the water, much more happens on land far from the coast.

Educate others 

One of the most potent ways to combat this growing problem is cultivating awareness. The more people who know that this problem threatens all life on the planet, the more likely they’ll spring into action.

That’s why it’s crucial to spread the word. Learn everything you can about coral reefs so you can educate everyone in your community. Share this information with friends, family, schools, and businesses in your area. Contact your local representatives to see what your state is doing to protect coral reefs. 

Exercise care when visiting reefs

Dive and snorkel responsibly when exploring coral reefs. Avoid touching reefs at all costs, and don’t anchor your boat anywhere near the reef.

Even the slightest human contact can damage delicate coral. Even worse, anchoring right on the reef can destroy it. Look for sandy bottoms or use moorings when you want to anchor your vessel.

Decrease sunscreen use

Because sunscreen ingredients can harm or kill coral, try to find safer alternatives. Even better, decrease sunscreen use or wear a long sleeve shirt to prevent sunburn.

Recycle and dispose of trash properly

Debris blown by the wind can end up in the ocean, harming coral reefs. 

That’s why it’s crucial to recycle your trash at home and when you’re out in public. This is especially true for plastic trash, which is particularly toxic to marine life.

Ensure that you don’t leave any trash behind when you’re at the beach, including nasty cigarette butts. Keep rivers and streams clean by volunteering to pick up trash in your community. Check with local environmental organizations for annual trash cleanups.

Minimize fertilizer use

Fertilizer from lawns has nitrogen and phosphorus in it, which can get washed into rivers and streams and end up in oceans. These nutrients cause runaway algae blooms, which can irrevocably harm coral reefs. That’s why you should consider minimizing the use of chemical fertilizers or using more natural alternatives.

Use environmentally-friendly transportation

Using cleaner transportation methods reduces the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted into the atmosphere. These harmful emissions contribute to ocean acidification and increase the water temperature.

Try driving your car less and walking, biking, or using public transportation more. When buying an automobile, choose a fuel-efficient vehicle such as an electric car or a hybrid.

Reduce stormwater runoff

Taking this step helps prevent water pollution, reduces flooding, and protects our valuable water resources. All of this can help reduce the devastation of coral reefs.

If you’re a homeowner, install water catchments and rain gardens, and collect rainwater that would typically be diverted to a storm drain in a rain barrel.

Be an energy saver 

Save energy at home by turning off lights and electronic devices when you’re not using them. Turn off the lights and your computer when you leave work for the day. When buying new appliances, look for Energy Star certified ones to ensure they’re energy-efficient.

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