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26 March 2015updated 26 Sep 2015 6:46am

Coral reefs are an irreplaceable environmental and economic treasure, in need of help

"Losing the world's coral reefs would be like burning every Impressionist painting - you won't get them back." A new exhibiton at the Natural History Museum shows just what a tragedy these natural wonders' loss would be.

By Tosin Thompson

When we hear the words “coral reef” we probably reminiscence on its collage of beauty, and feel nostalgic about Finding Nemo, but that’s probably as far as most people’s knowledge goes. Yet despite occupying only about 0.1 per cent of the ocean’s floor, they provide life for at least a quarter of all marine species  and with rareness comes fragility. Human interferences such as overfishing, coral bleaching, pollution and climate change have damaged coral reef ecosystems, and many of them are now holding on for dear life.

By 2050, practically all of the world’s coral reefs will be seriously endangered. The Caribbean reefs, for example, have already lost 80 per cent of its coral cover since the 1970s, mainly due to the overfishing of the fish which eat algae that grows on it, as well as a disease that wiped out algae-eating sea urchins – causing the complete off-balance in the coral:algae ratio. Coral and photosynthesising algae are meant to live in symbiotic harmony when the water temperature is just right, but a rise in global temperatures stresses the algae; they get fed up and start to leave the coral in a process called “coral bleaching“. The result is that the corals lose their algae, and without the algae they start to die. 

There are around 800 species of coral worldwide, and some have developed extreme survival tactics, like dissolving neighbouring corals with digestive toxins. But this isn’t enough, and like all ecosystems, the damage caused to the coral reefs will have a domino effect throughout the world’s oceans, and on land – like people living in countries like the Philippines and Haiti, two impoverished places which depend on the reefs for both food and tourism revenue.

To try to kick against public ignorance of just how important coral reefs are to us, the the Natural History Museum has curated a new exhibition about them. “This exhibition helps us to understand and predict the effect of human impact and climate change on our oceans, one of the biggest challenges facing our natural world today,” said Sir Michael Dixon, the NMH’s director ahead of its opening. “Coral reefs […] are being studied every day here at the museum.”

The exhibition is simple, spacious but effective. You walk in feeling as those you’ve been immersed in water, and there are geometrically-accurate structures of corals dotted around the space to create that “under the sea” illusion (though they’re made from fresh plywood, the pungent smell of which may sometimes slap you back to reality).

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Speaking to the NS at the press opening, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg from the University of Queensland spoke about why coral reefs are important, and the dangerous consequences of not having them around anymore:

Coral reefs are important for a number of reasons. Up front they are an enormously beautiful and diverse system – the most diverse ecosystem on the planet, aside from the rainforests. When you look at their contribution, they have generated trillions of dollars to economies across the planet. But what’s important is that there are about 500,000 people with very little means who live along coastlines and look to coral reefs for their daily meals and income. And those 500,000 people are extremely vulnerable. If we start to lose productivity of coral reefs and fisheries disappear, those people become even more impoverished.

It’s an informative exhibition  and here are seven highlights:

1) It has six corals collected by Charles Darwin during his HS Beagle from 1831 to 1886  and even better, it’s got the illustrations from his first scientific study, on the formation of coral reefs.

Darwin’s notebook.

2) A giant Turbinaria coral – a massive, one-metre-long specimen, the many layers of which would have been a safe haven for many sea species.

3) A giant clam – the biggest of all living bivalves, and weighs as much as 300 bags of sugar. It’s currently under threat of extinction as a result of overfishing.

4) A giant grouper – about the size of a large motorcycle, it’s the largest bony fish living in the Great Barrier Reef. But don’t be deceived by its size, as it doesn’t eat humans and is in real threat of extinction throughout the Indo-Pacific region due to overfishing.

A mighty, giant grouper fish.

5) A sea fan – a fragile lace-like structure that helps filter food out of the water. It’s also home to seahorses and nudibranchs.

6) Gorgeous 180 degree panoramic imagery of several reefs in a chamber of circular screens.

The immersive reef chamber.

7) A hundred real-life fish and 26 species of coral, making up a four-tonne aquarium. (And, of course, I tried to count up all the Nemos and Dorys I could find.)

“Losing the coral reefs would be like taking all the Impressionist pictures in the world and burning them, because you won’t get them back,” said Hoegh-Guldberg. “Once you’ve lost them it’s a tragedy.” On this evidence, it’s clear why.

Coral Reefs: Secret Cities of the Sea will be opened to the public on 27 March – 13 September 2015, 10.00 – 17.50. All photos by the author unless otherwise credited.

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