Confronting the Coral Conundrum


Confronting the Coral Conundrum

Drew McRacken
Published by the PIT Journal: 


Coral reefs are the foundation upon which the rest of the oceanic ecosystem sits upon. This vibrant and dynamic organism provides shelter and food for countless organisms, while also acting as a direct indicator of marine health. The absence of coral reefs results in immediate and catastrophic consequences both above and below the waves. Despite the necessity of one of the planet's longest-thriving inhabitants, a culmination of factors has led to an unprecedented and alarming decline of the world's coral reef population, especially in Australia's Great Barrier Reef. This paper examines the broad debate concerning whether or not there is hope left for coral reefs, and if there is, what can be done to save them. Ultimately, it can be determined that there is still hope to save and even repair the damage done to coral reefs, but it must be both a collective and immediate effort.


What is the most important part of a tropical marine environment? Is it the vibrant colors? Maybe the sweet serenity of silence or the vast array of aquatic diversity? While many people recognize these celebrated aspects of a marine environment, few recognize the urgent threats currently being posed to the foundation of the ecosystem: coral.  From in and around a coral reef grows vibrant life, as it provides food, shelter, and a stable ecosystem for many organisms. However, the stability of the ecosystem is being threatened by rates of coral bleaching, which have dramatically increased in the past three decades. While the severity of the situation goes unnoticed by many, the current problem facing the world’s reefs demands immediate attention, but there is still hope to save and even reverse the damage done to this vital piece of the aquatic puzzle. I will dive into the scholarly conversation among several marine environmentalists in order to eradicate any common misconceptions about the coral reef problem, explain the present situation, and consider whether or not anything can (or cannot) be done to combat the problem moving forward.

If we are going to understand how to solve this problem, we first need to address some basics. What is coral, and what does it mean for it to die? The basic structure of coral consists of a hard, calcareous skeleton covered in tiny, sac-like pores called polyps, which is a biological feature that links corals to anemones. The polyp can be described as “a tin can open at just one end; the open end has a mouth surrounded by a ring of stinging tentacles” (Frost).  This simile is used to emphasize the sac within, that can store and break down captured food much like a Venus flytrap (Frost). Another primary way of obtaining food, and the most relevant one to this particular discussion, are the tiny, photosynthetic algae that reside in the rubbery skin of the polyp. In warm, shallow water environments, the calcium skeleton provides the algae with housing, while the single-celled algae provide the organism with nutrients, energy, and the vibrant array of colors so often associated with reefs. This food source is the first level to be examined when discussing coral death (Bauer and Adriana). The phenomenon responsible for the destruction is none other than coral calcification, or more commonly referred to as coral bleaching. When ocean temperatures rise too high, the zooxanthellae are expelled from their home in the skeleton, leaving the coral void of sustenance.  If the temperature does not return to normal levels within the appropriate time frame, the algae are locked out, leaving behind a hard, white, and bleached carcass of dead coral (Goreau 178). After a time, the bleached coral structure is overcome by a blanket of turfing algae, which bogs down the water quality and surrounding environment (Schmidt 294).

If coral is dying, then it is a significant issue, and the plausibility of a solution needs to be addressed. Elevated ocean temperatures for extended periods of time can lay whole sections of reef to waste, which destroys the ecosystem living within and above the waves. It leaves hundreds of species void of a home and food supply, while also degrading the health of the surrounding water. The health of the reef directly correlates to the health of the smallest zooxanthellae to the more dominant sharks, turtles, and grouper. Where there was once a complex architecture of living reef, now lies a graveyard of rubble, incapable of supporting photosynthetic algae, loggerhead sea turtles, or anything in between. Once again, the consequences of dead coral extend above the waves and onto land, as so many populations depend on fishing or maritime activities as the foundation of the economy. For example, the Australia’s reefs generate over 6 million dollars in revenue annually (Lloyd 96).  Katie Valentine, a former climate reporter and editor for ThinkProgress, asserts that “coral reefs provide substantial protection against wave energy, lessening the impact of sea level rise and intense storm surges” for millions of people (Valentine). Valentine’s point is that reefs provide a physical barrier against weather such as hurricanes, tropical storms, and tsunamis. The oceans control the weather and climate all over the world, and coral is one of the best indicators of ocean health because they react very easily as conditions become incompatible, much like a canary in a marine mineshaft (Pandolfi 1725). Coral reefs are the foundation of the world’s oceans, and many other organisms and ecosystems are balancing on top of it. If the foundation is removed, everything else comes toppling down with it. Ultimately, what is at stake here is the collapse of a marine macro-ecosystem, which will directly affect the health of the ocean and organisms surrounding the bleached area.

Coral has thrived in the world’s oceans for thousands of years, but the past three decades have seen an unprecedented decline in the life of the coral population. The global average of coral degradation has seen rates of approximately 3% of reefs succumbing to bleaching each year (Hoegh-Guldberg 1739). Coral is present in oceans all over the world, but for the sake of my research, this project’s focus is limited to the toll of coral bleaching on one of the seven wonders of the natural world: The Great Barrier Reef.  Dr. Glenn De’ath, a principal research scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, states that the Great Barrier Reef has been declared the world’s least threatened reef due to the distance from strong human influence as well as significant legal protection (17995). However, the largest living organism visible from space has still lost approximately 50% of coral cover along the 345,000-square kilometer section that comprises the reef, according to De’ath (17996). While the bleaching crisis affects many aspects including economics and politics, I am simply looking at the question of whether or not there is hope left for the future of the reef. If the reefs are not alive to begin with, then there is no need to even worry about the effects on other variables. While the severity of the situation still goes unnoticed by many, the current problem facing the world’s reefs demands immediate attention, but there is still hope to save and even reverse the damage done to this vital piece of the marine ecosystem.

We have now discussed what it means for coral to die as well as what is causing it. As I said earlier, there is a larger debate surrounding the current coral conundrum. One controversial topic within environmental discussions is around the worth of protecting the reefs. There are several ways to look at the issue, and I will present several of these viewpoints through a scholarly platform to argue that the Great Barrier Reef and similar ecosystems are worth saving because there is still hope for survival. Some scholars argue that too much damage has already been done to coral reefs for them to be saved; therefore, they are doomed to die. Peter Sale, a pioneer in the field of marine science and an Emeritus professor at the University of Sydney, contests that the copious amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere as well as the resulting increase in global temperature are at fault for the increased bleaching rates (Sale 136-7). He asserts that at our current state of behavior as a human population will inevitably lead the Earth’s coral to extinction unless something is changed quickly. Sale is an international expert on global temperature change and how the coral reacts to increased water temperatures. While he does recognize that it is not too late, Sale’s objective perspective targets 2050 as the year in which all coral has become bleached and wrenched of life. In Our Dying Planet, Sale maps out the connection between the increased industrial effort in response to an exponentially growing population (313-317). As an environmental advocate and academic, Sale’s position indirectly acts as the counter argument in the debate of whether or not there is hope left for the reefs. Spending a majority of his career in Australia, Sale has personally witnessed the effect of bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef.  Seeing what was once one of the most vibrant and biologically diverse environments on Earth cut in half by the bleaching beast leaves little hope or confidence in revival for such an important organism.

Sale provides a relatively bleak outlook for the future of coral, but he is not the only scholar to weigh in on this topic. Others like Charles Schmidt argue that there actually is hope to stop the rapid decline in the coral population, and it can be achieved by way of immediate human action. He is a former environmental toxicologist and current science journalist for National Geographic, and he has both a broad and specific perspective when it comes to coral bleaching. In the Environmental Health Perspectives article “In Hot Water,” Schmidt contends with Sale that the main cause of coral bleaching originates from global climate change, and that the increased levels of bleaching have a direct negative effect not only on the marine world, but also the health and economy of the human population (294). As I mentioned previously, a large fraction of the human race depends on fishing for food and a livelihood, and the physical structure of coral reefs protect many coastal habitats, human and animal alike, from the ferocity of ocean-born storms (Lloyd 89-92). While I am just looking at the question of hope for the reefs, it is important to note the role that coral reefs play in the big picture. Schmidt’s broad view on the increased bleaching rates targets big picture variables and global climate change, but his more specific take on the issue better fits the focus of this debate.

Schmidt agrees with Sale that the source of the problem in human action, but he advocates that there actually is a way to stop the progression and severity of bleaching. Instead of simply recognizing the bleaching crisis that Sale addresses, Schmidt presents a specific solution that he believes will slow and stop the growing rates of annual bleaching events. In the article “In Hot Water,” Schmidt focuses on areas in the eastern Caribbean, but because the bleaching issue translates all over the globe, his argument may present a solution to the problem facing the Great Barrier Reef as well (296). Schmidt specifically looks at the relationship between ocean health and coral bleaching, and he targets pathogens and sewer contamination as the primary way to combat the issue. Understanding that our environmental impact extends beyond our backyards and down below the waves is a major step towards minimizing the annual rate of coral death. Dr. Scott Woolridge, an ecological modeler and spatial analyst at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, supplements Schmidt’s argument in the assertion that improved water quality can significantly better prepare corals for increased temperatures (1492). Woolridge asserts that the preventative strategy in the experiment on the Great Barrier Reef led to the first concrete evidence that “improved coral reef management will increase the regional-scale survival prospects of coral reefs to global climate change” (1492). His point is that by minimizing the presence of the pathogens to which Schmidt referred, coral reefs can be best equipped to fight the rising ocean temperatures, which are less easily controlled. Schmidt’s scholarly input adds the second thought processes concerning the hope for the future of our reefs; one way declares that it is too late, while the other claims that there are measures that can be taken to stop the process.

Some scholars like Dr. Ray Berkelmans, a research scientist for the Australian Institute of Marine Science, even suggest that there is a third option concerning how the coral bleaching problem can be addressed. Through transplantation and experimental manipulation, he has identified several species of adult coral that have been able to undergo an adaptation that allows for a higher heat tolerance, thereby increasing the organism’s ability to withstand rising ocean temperatures (Berkelmans 2305). However, an increased heat tolerance is not the only discovery that Dr. Berkelmans has made through his research. So far, eight identified phylogenetic clades of zooxanthellae have been identified by their DNA, with each group containing several species of algae. It was previously believed that a coral species was only compatible with one species of zooxanthellae, but Dr. Berkelmans and his team assert that “there are a number of coral species that can also associate with several symbiont types simultaneously” (2305).  His point is that, not only are corals able to withstand higher than normal ocean temperatures before bleaching, but they are also compatible with different levels of multiple types of zooxanthellae. Especially in the dynamic environment of the Great Barrier Reef, different combinations of algae species can provide ecological advantages and stimulate coral growth. Berkelmans acknowledges that, while this adaptation may not be able to withstand the projected ocean temperatures 100 years from now, it may be able to stall the issue for long enough that effective greenhouse gas reduction methods can be installed (“The Role of Zooxanthellae…” 2307).  Dr. Berkelmans’ research has provided a third insight, which remains unique from that of Sale and Schmidt, to the conversation on whether or not there is hope for coral reefs moving forward.

Adding to the argument that we have the ability to reverse the effects of coral bleaching is Dennis Normile, a civil engineer and current Japanese correspondent for Science magazine. In his article “Bringing Coral Reefs Back from the Living Dead,” he summarizes an experiment that he oversaw carried out by Japanese marine ecologists on a reef ravaged by bleaching off the coast of Japan. In this experiment, divers placed several ceramic plates near a section of living reef right before a mass spawning of coral larvae (559). Following the spawn, the disks were collected and moved to a controlled environment where they were allowed to mature into colonies, free from the threat of bleaching. After an 18-month period of growth, the plates were strategically placed on sections of the reef where the bleaching was most severe. By the year 2040, scientists hope to have fully restored the 27,000-hectare reef (Normile 559). Concerning the question of whether or not coral reefs will be savable in the future, Normile’s observations contend that bleached reefs are actually capable of being restored using techniques similar to that of replanting tree saplings.

This group of scholars provides us with a three-pronged approach to the coral crisis.  On one hand, Sale says that, with the path that we are currently on, the world’s coral, including that of the Great Barrier Reef, is doomed to die. Schmidt argues that we still have time to minimize the presence of pathogens in the ocean, and the current rates of bleaching can be stopped before total extinction of the world’s coral population occurs. Berkelmans trail blazes his own path and says that not only can bleaching be stopped, but the damage can also be reversed. The coral conundrum is a complicated issue that cannot be answered by any single research question, so the assertions of multiple scholars, such as Sale, Schmidt, and Berkelmans, must all be taken into account to determine if there is hope to save the Great Barrier Reef and other structures like it.

Through my research on the previously mentioned scholars, I have developed my own input on whether or not there is hope for coral reefs can be saved. My view is comprised of different aspects from each of the scholarly conversations outlined in the debate so that I can best assert what I think within the larger conversation on coral reef ecology and health. On one hand, I agree with Sale in the fact that, at the rate coral is deteriorating in the Great Barrier Reef and around the world, there is nothing that can be done to save the organism with our current pattern of environmentally unfriendly behavior. If we wait too long to address the severity of the bleaching issue, too great of damage will be done to reefs to have any hope of rehabilitation. But on the other hand, I insist that we still have time to act on saving coral reefs because there are several measures that can be taken in a short time frame to improve the current state of our coral. I agree with Schmidt on the fact that we should focus on minimizing the presence of pollution and other pathogens in the ocean; a healthy ocean environment can maximize a reef’s ability to withstand increased temperatures. I disagree with Schmidt in the fact that all we can do is stop the process because if simply removing pollution from the ocean increases coral health and resistance to bleaching, then a more extensive effort to minimize our environmental impact overall will provide an even bigger help to the state of the world’s coral. I am in most agreement with Dr. Berkelmans’ assertions on our ability to restore bleached reefs in the future because of the success that has already been observed and measured. Heat tolerance and multi-zooxanthellae symbiosis have the potential to be applied to coral on a wide scale as opposed to a handful of species. I excitedly look towards the ever-advancing discoveries of those like him. Practices like those being carried out in Japan where coral is being re-planted like tree saplings in a burned forest are critical in the effort to help rebuild the world’s reefs. After analyzing the extensive research done by scholars such as Berkelmans and Normile followed by the reports of significant success in coral rehabilitation, I think that the problem can be stopped and even reversed, but it cannot be done overnight.

The coral reef population of the world, including the Great Barrier Reef, cannot be saved by a small fraction of marine research scientists because there is too large of an affected area. Therefore, the responsibility to fix the incompatible climate that is ever so quickly destroying coral reefs must be taken on by everyone (McClanahan 503). I choose to believe in hope for the future of coral because, without reefs, we lose a vital piece of the marine ecosystem that supports many other lives and aspects outside that of the fish community.  To fix this issue, action must be taken to combat the rampant wreckage on the Great Barrier Reef. Those like Sale, Schmidt, and Berkelmans, who have already taken successful steps in combating the issue, have only tapped the tip of the iceberg, since coral has only become a significant source of study in the past 50 years.  As mentioned previously, I am not discussing the impact of coral on the economy or politics, but rather addressing the simple question of whether or not there is hope to be found in this bleak situation. My answer is yes, hope is found in the slowly growing recognition that coral reefs are a vital part of the environment. We as humans cannot afford to suffer the consequences of losing such a dynamic organism.

Coral reefs are dying at an alarming rate, that much is for certain. Many argue that the case is a lost cause and incapable of being rescued. The problem at hand is one that affects everyone, not just the population of Australia.  It is difficult to acquire a subjective or quantitative answer to this issue, but it takes a conscious effort from everyone to understand that every individual has a responsibility in saving the Great Barrier Reef and the rest of the coral around the world. I choose to believe in hope for the future of the world’s coral reefs and help fight for an organism that lacks the ability to do so for itself. See the problem. Address the issue. Be a part of the solution.



Works Cited

Bauer, and Adriana. “Structure, Classification and Function of Corals - Biodiscovery and the Great Barrier Reef.” Queensland Museum,

Berkelmans, Ray, and Madeleine J. H. Van Oppen. “The Role of Zooxanthellae in the Thermal Tolerance of Corals: A 'Nugget of Hope' for Coral Reefs in an Era of Climate Change.” Proceedings: Biological Sciences, vol. 273, no. 1599, 8 June 2006, pp. 2305–2312. JSTOR, JSTOR,

De'ath, Glenn, et al. “The 27-Year Decline of Coral Cover on the Great Barrier Reef and Its Causes.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 109, no. 44, 25 May 2012, pp. 17995–17999. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Goreau, Thomas J., and Raymond L. Hayes. “Coral Bleaching and Ocean ‘Hot Spots.’” Ambio, vol. 23, no. 3, May 1994, pp. 176–180. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Frost, Emily. “Corals and Coral Reefs.” Ocean Portal: Smithsonian, Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, 28 Feb. 2018,

Hoegh-Guldberg, O., et al. “Coral Reefs under Rapid Climate Change and Ocean Acidification.” Science, vol. 318, no. 5857, 14 December 2007, pp. 1737–1742. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Lloyd, Rohan. “Through the Reef: Settler Politics, Science, and the Great Barrier Reef.” RCC Perspectives, no. 2, 2017, pp. 89–98. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Valentine, Katie. “Coral Reefs Protect Shorelines by Reducing Wave Energy by 97 Percent.” ThinkProgress, 16 May 2014,


About the Author(s)

Drew McRacken is a sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studying Biomedical and Health Science Engineering with a minor in Neuroscience. Following graduation, he plans on pursuing a career in prosthetic devices.