A Simple Guide to The Business of Coral Reefs

The Prime Minister Voreqe Baini­marama stressed at the launch of the International Year of the Reef in January how critical maintaining the coral reef systems all around the world was
07 Apr 2018 11:00
A Simple Guide to The Business of Coral Reefs

The Prime Minister Voreqe Baini­marama stressed at the launch of the International Year of the Reef in January how critical maintaining the coral reef systems all around the world was to the lifestyle of every single indi­vidual on Earth.

He further pointed out that for Fiji and the rest of the South Pacific, the health of our reefs was even more important.

For the average person this is a statement that is difficult to understand.

What’s this got to do with out business pages? Simple.

Four our biggest industry, Tourism, our reefs and their heatlh are vital.


Some research on the attitudes of people in Fiji to the reef systems uncovered in­teresting results, and reflected the lack of knowledge of the population in general to one of the dominant features of the geog­raphy of the country.

A significant percentage believed that the reef structure was a vast and basically indestructible solid structure, likened by many to a rock barrier that helped pro­tect the land from the action of the ocean waves.

The reefs provide a separation and make a safe haven for villages and boat harbours.

This is a very misleading simplification of a very complex ecosystem, and it is cre­ated to a great extent by the lack of aware­ness and education about this important part of the coastline of Fiji.

What is a reef?

One of the most important facts is that the reef is actually a living, growing and mortal structure, in that it is created by the bodies of hundreds of millions of cel­lular animals called polyps.

Unlike plants, they do not make their own food but need a food source just like all other animals related to sea anemones and jellyfish.

They are invertebrates, soft pink in col­our and in fact they were used to create the description of the colour ‘coral’, first used in 1513.

Polyps generally rely on algae for nour­ishment.

The algae live in the shelter of the coral reefs and turn sunlight into sugar, which feeds the polyps and in turn the polyps provide carbon dioxide for the algae.

This close relationship is what makes the coral so sensitive to environmental chang­es that affect their environment and cause destruction of the structure.

The polyps link to each other to form col­onies and attach to a rock on the sea bed, continuing to grow by attachment until they form a reef through the skeletons of the dead polyps in the colony, which are calcium carbonate, a hard whitish solid substance.

The average polyp is small – approximate­ly one to three millimetres in diameter – but can bond together to form immense structures many kilometres in length.

When the reefs grow, they take one of three forms, fringing, barrier or atoll.

All these forms provide protection from the wave action of oceans but work in dif­ferent ways.

The sensitive nature of reefs

So it’s very easy. All we have to do is look after one tiny animal and one of the larg­est and most impressive structures in the world will be there of many generations to come.

And we will continue to reap the econom­ic benefits.

All this is pretty straight forward but it is also very obvious.

The coral is particularly sensitive to any changes in the water environment.

The best demonstration of this factor is Suva Harbour, which has a very robust coral reef that runs in a continuous cres­cent from Nukalau Island in the south to past Lami at the northern end but is bro­ken in three places where there is abso­lutely no coral reef.

These three openings are no accident but are the result of a natural change in the quality of the water in that area.

This change is because a significant natu­ral river enters the harbour at each point adjacent to the reef opening.

These rivers not only alter the salinity of the harbour at these very localised points but they also bring with them a range of pollutants, and have done so over thou­sands of years.

It is the same all along the coast, where rivers exit the land there will invariably be an opening opposite in the reef.

That is a natural thing and it provides useful entrances to the inshore areas.

Where the real damage is done to reefs is when the pollution from the land increas­es or there are other sources of increased pollution that could have been controlled but were allowed to continue.

Where the problem gets out of hand is where pollutants created.

One of the main causes of reef damage

Much of this finds its way from inland via rivers and streams which carry the dis­solved pollutants and spread them around the reefs.

These pollutants come from a significant variety of sources.

Chemical waste from factories gets re­leased into the environment, often through the sewer systems which treat for solids and bacteria but miss the chemicals.

Mineral waste in liquid form comes from such activities as agricultural process such as weed control and insect control but the most damaging is fertiliser runoff.

Residential activities also add to the load of damaging pollutants that enter the in­shore waters as runoff.

This can include sewerage effluent from septic or open toilets, water that contains detergents used for clothes and dishwash­ing, household insecticides and garden waste.

There is also a significant volume of liq­uid that leaches from waste either left ly­ing around or even from waste correctly disposed of where some leaching is expe­rienced from dump sites.

Carelessly disposed of solid waste also finds its way into the inshore seas because of rain water.

Motor oil and other fuel leaks are another potential source of pollution and Fiji has many vehicles that leak oil onto the road surface to be washed away in the rain.

Any one of these potential sources in it­self is not very significant but when all sources are present the volume of pollu­tion is large and will kill off our coral pol­yp in their thousands and eventually our reefs will be lost forever.

Our reefs contribute significantly to our largest industry, tourism.

Tourism contributes a great deal to our lifestyle and wellbeing, and the nation’s vulnerable economy.

There is no doubt everyone in Fiji wants to protect the reefs but the way to do that is to protect the polyp.

There are other causes of reef dam­age, the most significant being bleaching caused by sea temperature rises and the world leaders are addressing this, but each one of us has to also do our part, and that is to reduce the pollution we create.


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