Bleaching occurs when rising ocean temperatures cause coral to expel algae that reside within their tissue. Without the photosynthetic algae, corals turn white and begin to starve.
In 2017, sections of the Great Barrier Reef experienced bleaching for the second year in a row, and as climate change accelerates, the global trend lines look grim. Recently, I was part of a study that projects most coral reefs will experience annual bleaching by 2050.
Growing up in Hawaii, I recall fourth-grade field trips to the local tidal pools, where we clambered over rocks to identify fish like Moorish idols and blue tangs. I was hooked.
Now time is running out for my childhood playground. Recently half of Hawaii’s coral reefs experienced bleaching in a single year.
Coral reefs cover only 1% of the ocean floor but are home to more than 25% of marine life. Half a billion people rely on coral reefs as well, for livelihoods, food, and protection from storm surges. That’s why WWF is launching a global initiative to raise awareness about the threat to coral reefs (particularly those that sustain some of the world’s most vulnerable people), and to spur action by governments, civil society, and multilateral institutions. The situation is dire, but it’s not too late for us to change course.
On my way back offshore, I spot a smattering of gobies atop a coral bommie. Less than an inch in length, these tiny fish are easy to miss, but they play a crucial role: When coral is attacked by algae (which also causes bleaching), it sends out chemical signals to the gobies, who promptly clear away the noxious growth. By working together, gobies can respond to the coral’s cry for help.
It’s time for us to do the same.