Why Coral is the Most Important Thing You May Not Think About

In 2018 we partnered with the Marine Conservation Institute to support their work with our Coral Philanthropy Cheek Shade. We checked in with Dr. Sarah Hameed, their chief scientist, to find out how the nonprofit has been working to combat the biggest threats to healthy oceans (and learned a thing or two about the secret life of coral).

At a time when we’re inundated with images of floating plastic islands and bleached-out reefs, it’s hard to envision how we’re going to ever turn things around. But Sarah Hameed, senior scientist with the Marine Conservation Institute, is undeterred. She oversees their Global Ocean Refuge System, which protects marine biodiversity by creating a global network of Marine Protected Areas: secure and strategically placed “blue parks” that help marine ecosystems flourish. A mother of two and avid surfer who lives in the San Francisco Bay area, Hameed views these as one of the most effective ways to help the oceans—and all of the life that depends on them, including ours—thrive into the future.

How did you get into this line of work? Did you always love the ocean?
I did! I grew up on Maui, and my favorite memories of childhood are playing at the beach and in tidal pools and snorkeling around coral reefs. This was also within a culture in Hawaii that reveres the natural world, which I understood to be powerful and important and even having a personality to interact with. I never saw myself becoming a scientist, though—outside of my high school science teachers, I didn’t have any frame of reference for that. I eventually became a high school history teacher in Northern California, where I started volunteering at the Bodega Bay Marine Lab, then decided to get a degree in marine ecology at UC Davis.

Give it to us straight: What are the main ways in which we are damaging the oceans?
Simply put, we take way too much life out of the ocean and have put way too much waste into it. We’ve come up with more and more efficient, yet often destructive, ways of taking life out, and we’re doing it too fast for wildlife to recover; meanwhile, we’re also taking a bunch of life that we’re not even intending to take by virtue of dragging nets or bottom trawls and dynamite fishing—blowing up coral reefs to efficiently get the fish out of the water and into the market.

That presents half of the huge problem we face. The other half is putting too much waste in. Along with oil rigs and exploration and pipelines and ships, there’s all of our garbage debris and atmospheric CO2 being absorbed by the ocean, acidifying it and changing the habitats for marine wildlife. Another result of atmospheric carbon emissions is warming ocean temperatures.  These threaten corals globally, causing ocean levels to rise, and could change ocean currents with huge implications for the planet.

So the biggest threat to healthy oceans is...
I would say biodiversity loss from overfishing and destructive human activities, and climate change.

How about plastic waste? The reusable straw has become a new symbol of activism.
I’m really glad that it has garnered so much attention. To my mind, it’s not the biggest crisis facing our oceans, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t solve it. More and more we are understanding that much of the plastic we touch every day is ending up in our oceans, and it is incredibly detrimental to our ocean ecosystems and wildlife. Realistically, though, we’ve got to address our plastic problem at the source: how we use or misuse plastic in our society and globally.

"If you’re looking at an individual coral in deep water, you could be looking at hundreds of years of growth."

Our Philanthropy Cheek Shade celebrates coral. Why are reefs such a key focus of conservation?
Topical coral reefs are some of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world. They harbor so many interesting organisms, and yet the water itself doesn’t have much in the way of nutrients, so the foundation of that whole biodiverse food web is those corals. The zooxanthellae that live inside them is what captures sunlight and produces the food that’s sustaining the coral, which is then sustaining many other organisms and forms the basis of the food web. They also provide the color of the coral.

Shallow-water corals are very threatened by warming temperatures. The zooxanthellae can’t handle the warmer temperatures and are expelled from the coral, so all you see is the white calcium carbonate, which is why it looks bleached. If the temperatures are not too severe, they can be revived. But if it lasts too long, the coral dies. There are studies that suggest in some places that the coral reefs that have been well protected in Marine Protected Areas resist bleaching more than unprotected ones.

Deep-water corals are particularly vulnerable to harm, because they’re so long lived. If you’re looking at an individual deep-water coral, you could be looking at hundreds of years of growth, so when you knock one of these over with a bottom trawl, you’ve knocked over something that is older than most people.

So what are the most effective solutions to the mess we’re in?
In terms of protecting marine wildlife, Marine Protected Areas are the best tool we’ve got. We know they work when they are strongly protected and well managed. Scientists say we need to protect at least 30 percent of the global ocean to safeguard marine biodiversity, but not just any 30 percent. Each ecosystem in each region of the global ocean must be represented in a network of protected areas, so you have safe places for every kind of marine wildlife. I mean both tropical and deep-sea coral reefs, kelp forests along our temperate coastline, the polar regions, and everything in between. If we can protect a whole habitat, we are much more likely to protect the species that rely on that habitat than if we take a species-by-species approach to regulating what we can take out of the ocean.

How far along are we towards that 30 percent goal?
We’ve come a long way in the last decade, but we have even further to go. Thanks to our efforts and those of many, many others around the world, 2.2 percent of the global ocean is now in strong MPAs. But they are not strategically assembled, and many of them are weakly protected. There are only 10 Global Ocean Refuges right now, but since 2017, Marine Conservation Institute has been giving awards to create an incentive for governments to create strong protected areas in the ocean—we want to build on that national competitive spirit and pride. We will be announcing the 2019 Global Ocean Refuges in Norway this October.

As a mom, how do you share your deep love and respect for the ocean with your daughters?
My husband and I surf and sometimes they come out with us. But mainly we take our two daughters, seven and four, out to the beach every week. We play in the surf together and I go into marine-scientist mom mode, helping the girls try to determine the gender of a sand crab, or looking for sea stars or identifying barnacles. That’s the part that keeps me connected on a weekly basis to the ocean that I love.

What can each of us do to pitch in on ocean conservation?
For folks who live coastally, there are more immediate ways to be engaged: learn about your local protected areas and get involved. Serve on their advisory councils. All of these protected areas, just like your national and state parks, require community engagement. They are there to conserve wildlife in perpetuity for all of us.

No matter where you live, you can make better choices about the seafood that you purchase. It takes a little research—you could start with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Guide—but get to know where your seafood is coming from and choose sustainable seafood, if any at all.

For people who love travel, particularly those who love diving or surfing or even romantic walks on the beach, choose places that do a good job of protecting wildlife. You can learn this by going to our Atlas of Marine Protection and looking at whether the MPAs near a destination are fully or strongly protected, or not at all. These are the places you want to visit and want your money to go to, because they are examples of outstanding conservation work and they represent well-managed, pristine ecosystems. Support the projects and organizations that you think are doing a great job in terms of safeguarding marine biodiversity and protecting wildlife.

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Photos from top: Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park in the Philippines, 2017 Platinum Global Ocean Refuge; the coast at Tubbataha Reefs; Sarah Hameed; closeups of a sea anemone and an orange basket star covering a Picasso sponge at Davidson Seamount, California (courtesy of NOAA and MBARI); underwater at Tubbataha Reefs. All other images courtesy of Marine Conservation Institute.

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