Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

For Peat’s Sake: Internationally, Corals are Wetlands Too

For Peats Sake LogoBy Marla J. Stelk, Policy Analyst, ASWM

Last week I had the privilege of vacationing in the U.S. Virgin Islands. It was a bucket list trip for me – one I’ve wanted to make my whole life. As a child, I grew up taking vacations with my family that were jam packed full of activities – our time was spent going from one historical site to another with very little opportunity to stop and smell the roses. I begged my parents to take us to a beach resort stthomas1somewhere where we could just relax for a week. I finally got my wish – somewhat – when we went to Australia after my high school graduation. My mom signed up for a conference with the International Reading Association in Sydney, so we made a 3 week trip out of it and traveled from Cairns to Sydney and out to Ayers Rock.

While we were there, I had an experience of a lifetime – I got a quick crash course on scuba diving and got to dive the Great Barrier Reef. It was the most amazing experience and the beauty of the coral reef and sea life was mind blowing – so many colors and alien looking creatures. The immense diversity of life was humbling. My freshman year of college I decided to get PADI certified, but I did not have another opportunity to see any coral again until I went to Thailand with the San Francisco State University’s Wildlife Extension Program my senior year.

stcrispinsreefI went there to study the impacts of tourism and development on Thailand’s culture and environment for my senior thesis. While there, I had the opportunity to do some extensive snorkeling in the Andaman Sea off the southwestern coast. Once again, the colors of the corals and the immense diversity of sea life were extraordinary. But even then, they were worried about the health of their corals from the impacts of snorkelers who insisted on standing on and abusing the coral reefs, from destructive blasting practices by fishermen, and from the raw sewage that the resort towns poured directly into the ocean. That was in 1992 and the researchers that I interviewed at the Phuket Marine Biological Center were already sounding the alarm about the dire outlook for the future health of their coral reef ecosystems.

Fast forward to last week. I had not had an opportunity to go diving or snorkeling since my trip to Thailand in 1992. Although my vacation on St. Thomas and St. John was truly enjoyable and I would love to go back again, I was deeply dismayed by the condition of the coral on both islands. On St. Thomas I got recertified for diving by “Aqua Amy” at Coki Beach. She was a true gem. When I told her where I worked her eyes lit up and she said “Oh good – now that I know you understand and care about the corals, I’ll show you a project being done by the local university to try to regrow Staghorn coral. They haven’t been by to check it much lately but I measure the growth for them anyway.”

staghornSo we dove around the reef area surrounding Coki Beach and she showed me the university’s project. It was a very small project and I’m dubious if it will work, but who knows – you can’t blame them for trying. I witnessed corals that had no color and that were scarred by illegal anchoring activities by a local paddle boarding company and other boaters. Very little sea grass was present although there was some great sea life and a Parrot fish that decided it was my diving buddy for a while. Two days later, I traveled to St. John and went snorkeling at Maho Beach. The sea grass was much healthier there and supported a small community of sea turtles, but the coral was once again white and scarred; not teeming with life like the ones I had witnessed in Australia and Thailand more than 25 years ago.

I returned from my vacation relaxed but with a bittersweet taste in my mouth. Without further research I cannot say exactly what has led to the poor health of the islands’ corals, but I imagine it’s a combination of failing septic systems, stormwater runoff, destructive boating and fishing practices, and the newest threat – climate change. Coral bleaching has become a tremendous threat to coral health around the globe, most prominently now at the Great Barrier Reef, and is most commonly a result of corals being stressed by unusually high water temperatures. I just read an article yesterday in the Washington Post that said Australia’s National Coral Bleaching Task Force has found bleaching in 93% of the 911 coral reefs they surveyed by air. The article also states that “based on diving surveys of the northern reef, they already are seeing nearly 50% coral death.”

bleachedcoralAlthough the U.S. definition of wetlands does not include coral reefs, the international Ramsar definition does. And according to NOAA, “coral reefs support more species per unit area than any other marine environment.” They are basically underwater rain forests; chock full of some of the most amazing diversity of life in the entire world. A 2015 fact sheet I found from Ramsar states that 75% of the world’s coral reefs are at risk and 10% are damaged beyond repair. And in certain areas of the U.S. and abroad, coral reefs and mangroves live in a symbiotic relationship, meaning that if the corals are unhealthy, the mangroves are unhealthy. It’s a domino effect that does not have a happy ending.

As I write this, it is April 22nd – Earth Day. So For Peat’s Sake, although corals are not technically defined as wetlands in the U.S., they are in most other areas of the world. So I encourage you to embrace the importance of the world’s coral reefs and do what you can to protect what we have left. Our coastal communities and islands that we love to vacation on depend on it.

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