Coral reefs are some of the most diverse and valuable ecosystems on Earth. Coral reefs support more species per unit area than any other marine environment, including about 4,000 species of fish, 800 species of hard corals and hundreds of other species. Scientists estimate that there may be millions of undiscovered species of organisms living in and around reefs. This biodiversity is considered key to finding new medicines for the 21st century. Many drugs are now being developed from coral reef animals and plants as possible cures for cancer, arthritis, human bacterial infections, viruses, and other diseases.
Healthy coral reefs support commercial and subsistence fisheries as well as jobs and businesses through tourism and recreation. Approximately half of all federally managed fisheries depend on coral reefs and related habitats for a portion of their life cycles. The National Marine Fisheries Service estimates the commercial value of U.S. fisheries from coral reefs is over $100 million. Local economies receive billions of dollars from visitors to reefs through diving tours, recreational fishing trips, hotels, restaurants, and other businesses based near reef ecosystems.
Coral reef structures also buffer shorelines against 97 percent of the energy from waves, storms, and floods, helping to prevent loss of life, property damage, and erosion. When reefs are damaged or destroyed, the absence of this natural barrier can increase the damage to coastal communities from normal wave action and violent storms. Several million people live in U.S. coastal areas adjacent to or near coral reefs. Some coastal development is required to provide necessary infrastructure for coastal residents and the growing coastal tourism industry.
Despite their great economic and recreational value, coral reefs are severely threatened by pollution, disease, and habitat destruction. Once coral reefs are damaged, they are less able to support the many creatures that inhabit them and the communities near them. When a coral reef supports fewer fish, plants, and animals, it also loses value as a tourist destination.
Healthy coral reefs contain thousands of fish and invertebrate species found nowhere else on Earth. Learn more and view a larger image.
In the 1890s, harvesting sponges was second only to cigar-making in economic importance in the Florida Keys. Nets of recently harvested marine sponges are drying on the top of the boat's wheelhouse. Learn more and view a larger image.