Coral reefs are diverse and productive ecosystems
that play a vital role in supporting our marine life by providing breeding, feeding and nursery areas for various types of marine animals
. Additionally, reefs act as a protective barrier for our coast against intense waves and storms. Apart from their ecological importance, reefs contribute significantly to our economy by providing employment opportunities in recreational and tourism-related activities. Reefs also provide sources of food such as
Nassau grouper, Queen conch and Spiny lobster which generate millions of dollars annually in The Bahamas. Despite the importance of our reefs, many persons still do not understand how their actions have contributed to coral reef degradation which ultimately has caused and will continue to cause a significant decline in Bahamian fish populations.
How Do We Impact Coral Reefs?
From a tourism point of view, coral reefs are a primary attraction for visitors. For that reason, the coast has been greatly developed to support tourism growth by constructing hotels, marinas, and other forms of infrastructure. In most cases during construction, particularly when dredging occurs, sedimentation in the marine environment increases i.e. sediment settles on coral reefs. Additionally, there are increases in nutrient levels with runoff from golf courses and septic systems; this may also cause algal overgrowth. Increase in both sedimentation and algal overgrowth can cause smothering of coral reefs which then leads to the death of corals.
Tourism can also result in an increase in dive, snorkel and fishing zones which ultimately leads to an increase in reef damage from anchors, illegal and destructive fishing practices, trampling by swimmers and, boat collisions with coral reefs causing physical damage such as:
Breaking, crushing and/or complete removal of reefs,
Displacing corals and other marine animals and,
Boat groundings which break underlying reef structure that provide shelter for many types of marine animals.
Sadly in many cases, reefs do not recover from such impacts without human involvement like removal of fragments or wrecked boats, coral relocation, and other methods of reef restoration. Many of the restoration methods used are very costly and thus are not always practical.
What Can We Do?
Lack of knowledge can be one of the greatest threats to coral reefs. In some instances, persons are not even aware of how they are negatively affecting reefs. One major approach that can help to minimize impacts to reefs is to increase awareness of the ecological and economic importance of coral reefs and stress, through various forms of outreach and education activities, how human actions can result in reef decline and thus cause a depletion in fish populations. In the tourism sector, implementation of education programs and training opportunities can help to encourage persons to be more mindful of their actions during their daily operations and ultimately reduce damaging actions that typically impact reefs. Key elements that should be discussed in such programs include threats and impacts that are generally caused by tourism-related activities such as unsustainable development, boating, destructive fishing, marine and land-based pollution, as well as actions that can be performed to minimize reef degradation.