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Coral reefs could protect against rising water levels

Courtesy: USFWS

Courtesy: USFWS

Cheryl Santa Maria
Digital Reporter

Wednesday, May 14, 2014, 8:57 PM - Rising ocean temperatures, disease and a spike in recreational and commercial fishing activities have had a massive impact on the environment -- and that has put multiple coral species at risk.

In December 2012, NOAA proposed listing 66 coral species on the Endangered Species Act in an effort to save a resource that generates approximately $1.1 billion and thousands of jobs worldwide.

The proposal made headlines at the time while sparking a conversation about an important cause.

"Healthy coral reefs are among the most economically valuable and biologically diverse ecosystems on earth," said Jane Lubchenco, Ph.D., on behalf of NOAA.

"Corals provide habitat to support fisheries that feed millions of people; generate jobs and income to local economies through recreation, tourism, and fisheries; and protect coastlines from storms and erosion ... this is an important, sensible next step toward preserving the benefits provided by these species, both now and into the future."

RELATED: Decline in coral reefs accelerating

It has been estimated that coral reefs generate $200 million annually in the U.S. alone -- but coral is in trouble and reefs around the world are dwindling at an alarming rate.

Fish and plant life aren't the only ones at risk if coral disappears.

new study in Nature Communications echoes the sentiment of Dr. Lubchenco, suggesting that the reefs may do a better job protecting coastal communities from storms, flooding and erosion than man-made seawalls.

The study found that healthy reefs can reduce the height of storm waves by 51 to 75 percent. That's significant, especially when compared to artificial breakwater systems used in Hawaii and Sri Lanka which reduce wave height by an average of 30 to 70 percent.

The paper makes a few recommendations for preserving the coral that's left -- like reducing pollution and curbing fishing near reefs.

"We show that coral reefs can provide comparable wave attenuation benefits to artificial defences such as breakwaters, and reef defences can be enhanced cost effectively," the authors write.

"Reefs face growing threats yet there is opportunity to guide adaptation and hazard mitigation investments towards reef restoration to strengthen this first line of coastal defence."

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