Coral Reef Conservation: The Role Of Shedd Aquarium, The Role Of The Public
Nancy Slodki, Volunteer,
John G. Shedd Aquarium
Seventy percent of Earth’s surface is covered by ocean. This salty environment supports life on our planet. The water we drink, the rain and snow that fall, the streams and rivers all come from the oceans and return to the oceans. Unless you are a docent or volunteer at an aquarium, those of us who live far from the oceans tend not to think about the underwater realm. We eat seafood, watch television programs about the ocean, possibly use SCUBA or snorkel on reefs, but we’re typically more concerned with wildlife that is seen on land.
Comparatively little research has been done in the oceans, with an estimated 95 percent still unexplored.
The coral reef ecosystems comprise only one percent of the total ocean area, but harbor twenty-five percent of all marine species. One healthy reef is estimated to contain over 200 species of coral, 300 species of fish and 10,000 to 100,000 species of invertebrates other than the coral polyp. Coral polyps also are the animals responsible for building the largest structure on Earth the Great Barrier Reef off Australia’s coast.
Corals belong to the phylum Cnidaria (pronounced nidaria). The phylum name originates from the Greek cnidos meaning “stinging nettle”. Other members of this phylum include the sea anemones, sea jellies and the fresh water hydras. All cnidarians are characterized by the presence of stinging cells (cnidocysts or nematocysts). The basic structure of the cnidarians is that of an inner sac and outer sac with a jelly-like substance between the two layers. They have a gastric cavity, mouth and nerve cells (but no central nervous system). The mouth is surrounded by tentacles, which gather food to bring to the mouth. Reproduction is sexual. Eggs and sperm are released into the water where fertilization takes place. The corals differ from other members of the phylum in that they have algae (zooxanthellae) incorporated into their bodies and they produce skeletons of calcium carbonate.
Corals are divided into two basic types, the hard corals and soft corals. A main difference between the two is that the hard corals have six tentacles surrounding the mouth and the soft corals have eight. The soft corals are more colorful than the hard corals due to the presence of natural pigments and less symbiotic algae within their bodies. The hard corals are the reef building corals. All corals secrete a skeleton in which to live. Only the surface of a coral structure is living, the rest is limestone skeleton from previous generations. Some atolls have been growing for at least 50 million years and now are almost one mile thick. Ancient reefs are quarried for the limestone and it is possible to see sea creatures in the walls of buildings made of limestone from these sources.
In fact, the Chicago metropolitan area has numerous coral reefs. Unfortunately for us divers, they are 400 million years old and aren’t very colorful.
Coral reefs are frequently called the “rain forests of the ocean”. It has been estimated that a healthy coral reef contains over a million species of plants and animals. Only about 10 percent of these species have been identified. Coral reefs are found worldwide in tropical waters between 30 degrees north to 30 degrees south of the equator. The requirements for healthy coral growth are average water temperatures between 65° F. and 85° F., water motion and water clarity. All corals require sunlight and feed on zooplankton (floating animals). The zooxanthellae provide the polyps with food and the coral polyp provides carbon dioxide to the algae.
Not only are reefs important to the animals and plants that thrive there, but also are also important to people. They protect low-lying areas from surf and storm surges, provide a good source of protein from seafood and provide a source of income through a booming tourist industry.
Unfortunately, reefs are threatened around the world. Coral bleaching occurs when the symbiotic algae living in the tissues of the polyp is expelled. When the algae are no longer incorporated in the polyp, the coral loses its color, loses a source of energy and can no longer secrete the limestone skeleton. Reproduction also is suspended. Bleaching can be temporary and the corals can recover if the bleaching episode lasts for less than a month. With extended time, the coral will die.
Siltation of the coral reefs is a major problem in areas where there is runoff from streams and farms. Logging practices near streams (even those away from the ocean) contribute to siltation. If fine silt covers the reef and does not get washed off by currents or wave action, the coral is smothered and dies.
Black-band disease is an infection of the coral and is always fatal. It is thought that stresses, such as siltation, water temperature change and water quality cause the infective organism to gain a toehold and infect the coral polyp.
Overfishing in coral reefs upsets the balance of life. When all predators and algae-eating fish are removed, the reef ecosystem fails. Fishing practices themselves are another threat to the survival of the coral reef system. The aquarium fish trade provides a market for 200 million dollars worth of live-caught marine fish annually.
Cyanide fishing is one way fishermen obtain fish for this market. This method is most prevalent in Indonesia and the Philippines. Cyanide is squirted into the coral heads to stun the fish and then a crowbar is used to tear apart the coral to obtain them. Of course, while the fish are only stunned, the coral dies. An estimated 330,000 pounds of cyanide is injected into the coral reefs annually. Though it is not legal to use cyanide to obtain live marine fish, it is difficult to enforce the law and it is impossible for a concerned marine fish purchaser to determine how the specimens are obtained. Another fishing practice continuing in many parts of the world is the use of dynamite and homemade explosives. The explosives are simply thrown off a boat killing the fish, which float to the surface. An easy evening’s work, which leaves the corals destroyed.
Seahorses are taken from reefs for use in traditional medicines, the aquarium trade and the trade in curios. The estimated catch of seahorses in 1995 was at least 20 million dried animals and hundreds of thousands of live seahorses for the aquarium trade. This number represents more than 50 metric tons and is considered to be a conservative estimate.
Pollution from runoff is an additional threat. Even the herbicides, fertilizers and pesticides we put on our lawns and gardens here in the Midwest can reach the reefs. The fertilizers encourage an overgrowth of algae that can smother the corals and kill entire reefs. Pollutants are not only a danger to the coral reefs, but also to the oceans as a whole.
Physical damage to the reefs, whether by natural phenomenon or by anchor damage, shipwrecks or careless divers, also contributes to degradation of the world’s coral reefs. Reefs can recover from physical damage, but because of the slow growth rate of the corals, recovery may take from twenty to fifty years.
Today, scientists believe the biggest threat to the coral reef systems of the world is global warming. Ocean temperatures have been increasing dramatically in the past few decades. Since 1984, tropical waters in the Northern Hemisphere have a temperature increase of nearly a degree per decade. One degree per decade may not seem like an enormous rise in temperature, but for the fragile coral polyp it is a disaster. When water temperatures rise to 85° F. the algae’s metabolism increases and the coral polyp suffers from oxygen poisoning.
The polyp subsequently expels the algae, resulting in bleaching and the possible death of the coral. During the El Nino event of 1998, sixty percent of the world’s reefs were affected by varying degrees of coral bleaching.
The 9th International Coral Symposium was held in Bali, Indonesia in October 2000. Scientists attending the meeting forecast that half the world’s coral reefs may disappear in the next 25 years and that all coral reefs may be gone in as few as 50 years.
Considering all of this, is there hope for this ecosystem? Can we halt or slow the slide towards coral reef extinction? We believe the answer is Yes. You can make a difference as an individual and zoos and aquariums can have a positive impact, as well. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago is participating in the conservation of the coral reef systems. Our approach at the aquarium is two-fold: educating the public through our exhibits and leading and supporting field conservation efforts.
Visitors to Shedd see a 90,000 gallon Caribbean reef exhibit in which a diver hand feeds the animals and gives an underwater presentation on coral reef ecology. A touch-cart is also near the exhibit staffed with interpreters. Although the corals in the exhibit are artificial, the touch cart contains examples of coral skeletons and various species of other animals, including fish, sponges and mollusks. The beautiful Seahorse Symphony exhibit showcases many seahorse species and their relatives, the pipefishes and sea dragons all inhabitants of reefs, as well as sea grass beds and mangrove habitats. The Coastal Waters Gallery has many reef fish as well as sea anemones, moon jellies and living coral. In addition, we have one exhibit which houses living corals that have been confiscated by U.S. Customs and are a part of our coral propagation project. Perhaps our largest exhibit dealing with the coral reef systems is the Philippines exhibit under construction with a projected opening in 2003. When completed it will have a 6,000 gallon exhibit of living coral, an artificial reef with reef residents totaling 122,000 gallons and a 380,000 gallon shark display, as well as exhibits of other reef residents. The exhibit will also include information on Philippine communities situated near the reef.
All education does not take place at the aquarium. We offer various classes to the public and in addition have educational trips aboard the Shedd Aquarium research vessel, the Coral Reef II. These include trips for adults as well as an annual High School Marine Biology class. This educational opportunity for area high school students includes class work at the aquarium and one week spent exploring reefs, turtle grass and various other ocean realms in the Bahamas aboard the Coral Reef II.
Research of reefs and their inhabitants is another important aspect of the Shedd Aquarium. Our current reef research projects at the aquarium include husbandry research on seahorses and coral propagation studies. Currently, the aquarium is partnered with New England National Aquarium, Waikiki Aquarium and the Pittsburgh Zoo to propagate approximately 150 species of coral. Husbandry techniques are shared with these institutions. Propagation is accomplished by snipping off a small piece of coral and then adhering it to a hard substrate with the use of fishing string, super glue, epoxy or cement.
The aquarium is a partner with Project Seahorse, whose long-term goal is to ensure sustainable populations of seahorses while respecting the needs of the people who depend on seahorse trade for their livelihood. Our partnership is diverse and creative, with community-based programs and a national management program in the central Philippines, aquarium research and public education. Other joint initiatives include the distribution of the exhibit Seahorse Symphony, coordination of scientific workshops and forums focused on marine conservation, ex situ and in situ biological research and the development of alternative livelihoods for fishing communities.
Conservation efforts closer to home include a project working with The Nature Conservancy and the government of the Dominican Republic. Parque del Este, established in 1975 by the Dominican government, includes both terrestrial and marine components. The Shedd Aquarium participated in baseline reef survey work and the installation of mooring buoys to prevent anchor damage to the reef. The Coral Reef II was made available for researchers from the Dominican Republic and The Nature Conservancy and other institutions working at Parque del Este. Current work is also being done with the Bahamian government in establishing marine protected areas in the Bahamas. The first such protected area opened in March 2001. Surveys will be undertaken annually to determine the conservation effects not only in protected areas, but also in adjacent non-protected areas.
The solutions to improving the status of the world’s coral reefs lies not only with governments, conservation organizations, institutions and communities that benefit from the reefs. We at home and at work also can make a difference. Those “tried and true” three Rs: reduce, reuse and recycle, can decrease the amount of power used, therefore reducing the amount of CO2 emitted from power plants. Every 25% reduction in trash prevents 1,000 pounds of CO2 emission annually. Think about walking, bicycling or using mass transit instead of driving. You will save money and improve your health a “win-win” situation. If driving is necessary try combining trips into one. Not only will you reduce emissions, but also you will save money. Consider doing laundry in cold water rather than hot annual CO 2 reduction can be up to 500 pounds for two loads a week.
Are you in the market for a new car? Check out the gas mileage before you buy. The average annual CO2 reduction can be about 2,500 pounds if the vehicle gets 10 miles per gallon more than your old one. Conserve water to prevent runoff and wastewater reaching the coral reefs. Use biodegradable herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers, and, even better, plant species that are native to your area. Native plant species will conserve water, resist disease and need very little fertilization. Conserve energy at home, turn down the thermostat, reduce the temperature of your water heater to no higher than 120° and replace standard light bulbs with compact fluorescent energy efficient bulbs. The energy efficient bulbs can annually save the environment from 500 pounds of CO2 emission per bulb. Think twice about having a marine home aquarium or a live-rock aquarium.
Removal of fish and live-rocks from the reefs is disastrous to the reef ecosystems. There are many colorful fresh-water aquarium fish available. Volunteer locally to clean up streams in your area all water returns to the oceans even if you live in areas far removed from the coasts. When you travel to areas that have reefs, visit a reef and support the preservation of the reef. If you are a diver, the rule is, “take only pictures, leave only bubbles”. Join organizations that support coral reef research. Most of all, learn more about the coral reef ecosystems at your local library, local public aquarium and by surfing the net.
Keith Pamper, a friend, and staff member at the Shedd Aquarium compares the coral reefs to buried treasure in our oceans and states “The reef ecosystem is truly one of the ocean’s most dazzling treasures- and as valuable as all the chests of precious stones and gold doubloons reputed to be hidden throughout the islands of the Caribbean”. This treasure should be conserved for future generations.
Thanks to the many staff and volunteers, without whom this paper would have been impossible, including, but not limited to: Jeff Boehm, DVM Vice President Conservation and Veterinary Services; Cindy Gerstner, PhD, Senior Conservation Biologist; Colin Bull, Aquarium Research Coordinator; George Parsons, Assistant Curator Fishes; Mark Schick, Senior Aquarist; Nancy Anschel, Director Human Resources; Karen Furnweger, Publications Coordinator; Ed Lines, Photographer; Patrice Ceisel, Executive Producer.
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