By Max Salusky
When first viewed, corals look like endless colors and shapes, growing from every rock and sea floor. They have a hard, brittle, yet bony complexion, which protects them from ocean currents and potential predators. For many years people thought they were forms of undersea plants. However, corals are structures made by colonial organisms called polyps. A single coral polyp is microscopic, barely larger than three millimeters. They contain small tentacles or bristles used for filter feeding. For corals that live in the shallow water or anywhere close to sufficient sunlight, they employ a small form of algae which photosynthesizes and feeds the coral. A single polyp will build a small calcium carbonate “skeleton” that surrounds the individual. Eventually, through an asexual process, more polyps grow on top on one another which grows the skeletal structure. Each polyp species will make a unique coral as more get reproduced (Frischkorn 2017).
Tropical corals are a keystone species throughout the oceans they grow in. They give shelter and food for over a fourth of all marine life. Even numbers of echinoderm, shrimp, and fish species which specialize only in reef habitats. The tropical corals are the species we know most as they live in shallow waters. They also make the world renowned reef environments. However, there is also another form of coral which is found in the deep sea and provide the same ecological services. Aptly named Deep Sea Corals, they are difficult to study. Research performed reveals there is as much diversity, possibly more so, than tropical or shallow sea corals. The Ocean Portal Team wrote a paper which explained the amazing variation of deep sea corals stating, “Scientists have discovered single polyps as small as a grain of rice, tree-like coral colonies that tower as tall as 10 m (35 ft), and massive coral reefs that stretch for 40 km (25 mi)” (Ross et. al. 2009). The amount of evolutionary time to achieve such scales would be at least 500 years.
Corals evolved about 3.5 billion years ago, habitually dying off and regrowing throughout their evolution history. This is due to their high sensitivity toward ocean conditions. Slight temperature changes can remove lots of corals, salinity levels can destroy major reef systems. This means corals are extremely important indicators of overall ocean health because corals are slow growing. For a reef to occur means the ocean zone they’re growing in has been in stable condition for hundreds of years. Certain reef structures can take hundreds to even thousands of years to achieve a specific size and range. It only takes just a slight oceanic change to clear in a matter of days and weeks the thriving populations.
Environmental ethics questions our moral values in relationship to nature. Our human impact on Earth is more than noticeable and we’d have to question our methods of consumption and our treatment of ecosystems. Corals reveal the importance of environmental ethics as we witness and respond to their fate. Global climate change, along with increased pollution, is rapidly destroying vast coral reef environments. Corals are adapted to specific ocean temperatures because of the ocean’s capability to have a more stable climate than land. Each part of the ocean will have its own unique climate, which in turn will have unique reefs that are evolved for their surrounding environment. Our pollution combined with our accelerated CO2 emissions contribute to damaging coral.
Tropical coral have a symbiotic relationship with a single cell algae. The algae is called Symbiodinium which help feed the shallow reef corals. When there’s an alteration in the temperature, mainly heat, the algae are unable to photosynthesize. This means they are unable to feed the corals. The algae are then thrown out of the corals that eventually starve. According to journalist David Adam, “within just a few decades, experts are warning, the tropical reefs strung around the middle of our planet like a jewelled corset will reduce to rubble. Giant piles of slime-covered rubbish will litter the seabed and spell in large distressing letters for the rest of foreseeable time: Humans Were Here” (Adam 2009). Humanity is an expert at exploiting bountiful resources to the point where there is minimal to nothing left. Viewed from an environmental ethics perspective, there needs to be a greater determination for conservation. This means improved education, greater regulations for tourism and agreements for reduced emissions. There must also be a greater concern for illegal activities which contribute the most harm.
One major damaging practice toward corals is blast fishing. This is the most dangerous method of fishing for both fish and corals. Nets and trawls have their own threats, but blast fishing involves exploding a section of ocean floor to kill all the marine life in its radius. Blast fishermen then collect the particular fish of choice while the rest is left to rot as coral reefs become nothing more than a tarnished graveyard. “They stun the fish desired by the fisherman, kill other species, and physically turn the reefs into piles of rubble. Though blast fishing has been outlawed in many places, it continues to be practiced” (Schulman 2011). A few locations where blast fishing still occurs are in Indonesia and the Philippines. Blast fishing and many other Illegal activities add greatly toward the reef degradation globally. From the viewpoint of environmental ethics, the fishermen who blast fish are ignoring future problems which occur over time. In addition, they are putting their individual needs over future generations.
Corals are sensitive to any ocean disturbance, which enables them to be important indicators of ocean and environmental health. Commercial tourism has caused major reef systems worldwide go extinct or reduce in size dramatically. People who snorkel, dive, and swim in the clear waters can damage the corals. In an article in Time magazine Justin Worland adds, “The death of coral also represents a huge loss—as much as $375 billion annually—for the local economies along the globe they support.” (Worland ). These coral environments are as important to the animals which depend upon it as they are for the people. The most valuable form of environment along with rainforests, are coral reefs. In the perspective of environmental ethics, it is important that we question the tourism industry. As individuals, we can choose to be tourist anywhere, but is it moral to choose a place which is on the brink and would be damaged by our movements? It is important to consider where we choose to travel, because our presence can impact the regions positively or negatively.
Constructivism and the Social Construction of Nature
Constructivism addresses our human perspectives of nature. Every individual viewpoint of nature is seen as a social construct. Each perspective adds to the collective ideology of what nature is. Coral reefs are seen as the most pristine environments in the ocean, truly colorful and filled with so many wonders, it has to be kept pure and untouched. The problem with this view, is that reefs are under pressure from human activity, directly and indirectly. A constructivist would question the idea of wilderness as untouched and undiscovered land. What we view as immaculate wilderness can still suffer from human impact.
As high temperatures swing in today’s world, coral will be unable to evolve competitively with the rapidly rising heat. This started a movement to help facilitate corals to better adapt in modern impacts of the ocean. The coral engineering is not focused on the corals, but mainly the Symbiodinium algae, the food producers of shallow water corals. If these algae can adapt to higher temperatures, they can continue feeding coral and possibly reduce die offs. In a Smithsonian article by Kyle Frischkorn he mentions, “When Levin turned up the heat, she saw that the hardy Symbiodinium escalated its production of antioxidants and heat shock proteins, which help repair cellular damage caused by heat. Unsurprisingly, the normal Symbiodinium didn’t. Levin then turned her attention to figuring out a way to insert more copies of these crucial heat tolerating genes into the weaker Symbiodinium, thereby creating a strain adapted to live with corals from temperate regions—but with the tools to survive warming oceans” (Frischkorn 2017). Rachel Levin is a microbiologist who started an idea of altering nature by engineering improved Symbiodinium algae. As much as it is a controversy to alter nature in such a level of artificially evolving an organism, Levin’s efforts can save remaining coral populations as well as make them more adept to rising heat temperatures.
Engineering Symbiodinium algae is a rapidly growing trend in scientific labs. Because corals are generally fragile and sensitive, they would not be able to last well in lab procedures. The algae however, are more tolerant of experiments. Damien Cave and Justin Gillis give examples of scientists around the world in their New York Times article about their efforts in saving reef ecosystems, explaining that, “in Florida, they are pioneering techniques that may allow the rapid re-establishment of reefs killed by heat stress. In Hawaii, they are studying the biology of corals that somehow managed to cling to life as an earlier generation of people dumped raw sewage into a magnificent bay. In the Caribbean, countries are banding together to create a genetic storage bank for corals, a backup plan if today’s reefs all die” (Cave and Gillis 2017). International efforts are all going to help ensure there is no major extinction of corals. The problem is, there is lot of controversy when it comes to selective engineering and coral preservation.
We as human beings have generally altered the Earth’s environments, causing global scale damage. Often times environmental disasters occur when people assume they are helping. There is always risk of changing the course of coral evolution. Alex Riley mentions in a BBC article that “other critics, meanwhile, claim that the diversity of corals will be reduced if such methods are put into practice. Only the very strongest will survive, reducing reefs to shadows of their former assemblages” (2016). Corals are a keystone species and animals will adapt to specified coral formations as much as there are animals who solely depend on reef systems entirely. The evolutionarily advanced coral might reduce general coral variation dramatically, also forcing marine wildlife to likely be forced into competition to adapt with accelerated evolved corals.
There is controversy that enhancing coral evolution is “playing god” and unnatural because it’s not allowing organisms to evolve independently. However, we must remember that evolution and nature were and still are the driving force for all life. To help enhance the evolution of corals might in turn help them withstand higher temperatures.
Is wilderness, land and marine, truly untouched? Are we truly “playing god” when have already been altering the world? Reef environments, although are some damaged directly by people, have been altered by lots of indirect human activities. Due to the constant pressures with reefs and certainly many other environments, there might need to be a revaluation of the term wilderness. Mary Hagedorn, a scientist from the Smithsonian says “it's anathema to many people because they like to think of the oceans as wild” (Riley 2016). From a constructivist viewpoint, the idea that wilderness is a pristine and thriving land with endless variety is a social construction. No matter how we attempt to prevent disturbing reefs, ocean acidification, pollution, and climate change will damage what we’d view as wilderness.
Considering the degradation which reefs have to undergo, engineering coral to handle the human impacts might be an important idea. However, there needs to be consideration that these engineered corals can outcompete other naturally evolved corals which might have adapted to the rising temperatures. The positive impacts are that corals might last longer than expected. A possible disadvantage is that engineered coral reefs might alter greatly the relationship of species that were used to natural corals. In addition, if engineered corals are added to help combat extinction there needs to be thorough inspections of the modified corals to make sure they are behaving in the same manner as natural corals. If we view nature as a social construction, could this change how people might see wilderness as unaffected habitat, and allow the scientists to keep the environment alive?
Coral reefs are the least distributed habitats in the world, yet over a fourth of all ocean life is specialized to survive in them. Corals are found in many ocean zones, from the shorelines to deep sea locations. Everywhere a coral structure is formed, a massive amount of marine life follows. As the numbers of coral are reduced, so will the amount of corresponding biodiversity. This means a major amount of biomass that corresponds with corals die off with them. This would be an amount of damage to our planet because these are ecosystems which help ensure the health of Earth more than we’ve been able to understand.
People who live around coral reefs are able to benefit from tourism money, but that will be a past luxury once the reefs are gone. Tourists expect vibrant colors with infinite diversity of animals, not a barren graveyard. Reefs are also a sanctuary for much of the animals we consume as food, which utilize the corals for food and shelter. No more reefs mean no more food supply. This will be a significant loss and could even lead to starvation for certain cultures. Corals are a keystone species of great significance. Reducing pollution and climate change will help surviving corals recover and spread.
Adam, D. (2009, September 2). How global warming sealed the fate of the world's coral reefs . Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2009/sep/02/coral-catastrophic-future
Cave, D., & Gillis, J. (2017, September 20). Building a Better Coral Reef. Retrieved December 11, 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/20/climate/coral-great-barrier-reef.html
Frischkorn, K. (2017, August 03). A Blueprint for Genetically Engineering a Super Coral. Retrieved December 11, 2017, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/blueprint-engineering-super-coral-180964309/
Frost, E. (2016, September 12). Deep-sea Corals. Retrieved December 11, 2017, from http://ocean.si.edu/deep-sea-corals
Riley, A. (2016, March 22). Earth - The women with a controversial plan to save corals. Retrieved December 11, 2017, from http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20160322-the-women-with-a-controversial-plan-to-save-corals
Schulman, L. (2011, October 19). Reefs Reduced to Rubble. Retrieved from https://edblogs.columbia.edu/scppx3335-001-2011-3/tag/coral-reefs/
Worland, J. (n.d.). Dying Coral Reefs Impact Environment and Economy. Retrieved December 11, 2017, from http://time.com/coral/