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Coral Reefs: The Environment, Tourism, and the Economy

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AL has a Bachelor of Science in Natural Resources and Environmental Studies.

Read on to learn about coral reefs, unsustainable tourism, and more!

Read on to learn about coral reefs, unsustainable tourism, and more!

What Are Coral Reefs?

Coral reefs are made up of colonies of hundreds to thousands of tiny individual corals, called polyps. These marine invertebrate animals have hard exoskeletons made of calcium carbonate and are sessile, meaning permanently fixed in one place. Polyps grow slowly, forming different shapes and sizes depending on their species. (Natural History Museum, nd)

Coral reefs are some of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. Coral polyps, the animals primarily responsible for building reefs, can take many forms: large reef-building colonies, graceful flowing fans, and even small, solitary organisms. Thousands of species of corals have been discovered; some live in warm, shallow, tropical seas, and others in the cold, dark depths of the ocean. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2019)

Coral Reefs 101: National Geographic

Coral Reefs and the Environment

Coral reefs are sometimes referred to as the “rain forests of the ocean”. They are one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth. They accommodate more than half a million different species in the ocean. It is estimated that 25% of all marine life will rely on coral reefs at some stage of their life cycle. Coral reefs are an important element in the protection of biodiversity. They offer shelter, nursery grounds, and a source of food for more than half a million marine species.

Coral reefs also provide land cover at the base of the ocean. It helps mitigate the impacts of storms, tsunamis, erosions, and floods. This not only protects marine life but also reduces the impacts of these natural disasters on the adjacent coastal land area and infrastructure, thereby saving lives.

Coral reefs are also an effective tool used to mitigate the effects of climate change. The plant species found in the reefs absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it. This reduces the excess carbon dioxide in the environment that may end up in the atmosphere.


Coral Reefs and Tourism

Coral reefs also contribute positively to the tourism industry of the area. The beautiful coral reef scenery and marine life attract tourists, scuba divers, and fishermen. Tourists enjoy swimming over beaming hordes of fish found around the coral, snorkeling, taking underwater pictures, and glass-bottom boating.

It is worth mentioning that unsustainable tourism can, however, have negative implications on the health of coral reefs. Tourists can intentionally or accidentally pollute or break parts of the reefs, thereby disturbing the coral and the biodiversity sheltered within it. Dirt and debris in the ocean generated from tourism activities can block the sunlight and lead to low production and death of the corals.

To preserve the coral reefs, environmental protection laws are needed. Coral reefs are estimated to generate $36 billion per year globally from tourism-related activities. This huge economic contribution can be used as an incentive to preserve the health of the coral reefs.

To protect the coral reefs from exploitation, the authorities can develop a carrying capacity tool that monitors and limits the number of people utilizing the reef's resources. This tool is aimed at protecting the reef's resources from depletion and degradation by limiting the number of tourists in a specific area of the reef. The number of tourists allowed in an area of the reef should not exceed the levels that can be sustained by the reef.


Coral Reefs and the Economy

The importance of coral reefs is not limited to protecting biodiversity and tourism. Coral reefs are also an important economic driver. They act as a source of food for consumption and income generation. Globally, millions of people depend on the coral reef's ecosystem for food. Coral reefs are a source of thousands of commercially harvested fish species. Subsistence and commercial fisheries businesses are supported by healthy coral reefs. Local economies receive millions of dollars generated from tourism and fishing activities. Coral reefs also provide a source for new medicines used to treat many diseases including cancer and heart-related illnesses.

Increased economic activities can also have negative implications on the health of coral reefs. Growth in economic activities leads to an increase in resource utilization of coral reefs. It is, therefore, important to put up measures that can mitigate the growth of economic activities to levels that can be sustained by coral reefs. Using a maximum sustainable yield tool is one effective way of mitigating economic activities centered around coral reefs to sustainable levels. The maximum sustainable yield tool can be used to put a cap on the maximum number of the coral reef's natural resources that can be used for economic activities. This will protect the coral reef's resources from being exploited and depleted for economic gains.

Another effective way of protecting the coral reefs from economic exploitation is by developing policies that highlight the effects of externalities. Externalities are unintended consequences or side effects that may result from an activity. In this case, the activity is economic growth around the coral reefs, the externalities are pollution and land degradation. Highlighting these externalities can be used to regulate economic gains from the coral reefs, and hold the beneficiaries accountable in cases of pollution and land degradation. This will protect the coral reefs from unregulated economic activities.


Preservation of Coral Reefs Is Vital

Coral reef ecosystems are indeed an important element of our environment. They are the aquatic life’s providers of shelter, food, and protection. They mitigate the impacts of natural disasters by providing land cover. They are also a source of food, medicine, and income for humans. They generate billions of dollars from tourism-related economic activities. Therefore, the protection of coral reefs is not only a preservation of the environment but also a boost to the tourism and economic sectors of society.



  1. Coral reef ecosystems. (2019, February 1). National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
  2. Why are coral reefs important? (n.d.). Natural History Museum.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 AL