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Recommended:   Effects of Global Warming,    Ocean Pollution,    Recent Extinction of Species

Coral Reef Destruction

The world today has become one in which technology, riding on the back of scientific advance, appears to lead societal evolution. Unfortunately, technology plays the leading role, with societal recognition and social responsibility for actions taken often slow to catch up. Technology used inappropriately is frequently far more destructive in its effect than beneficial in what it has been called upon to achieve. Clear-cutting of timber, strip mining and hydraulic mining are all cases in point. These methods of harvesting trees and of extracting coal and mineral-bearing ores have proven devastating to local habitats and downstream environments in regions where they have been indiscriminately employed.

We are now, in effect, clear-cutting and strip mining portions of our oceans, with effects that may prove even more disasterous than land-based counterparts but whose consequences we are not yet fully able to assess or comprehend. Bottom trawling and blast fishing are two techniques by which this is being done that are especially hazardous to marine life and, in particular, to the coral reef ecosystem.


Blast fishing, although generally considered illegal, is practiced in over 30 countries worldwide. Fishermen using this technique detonate explosive charges beneath the ocean surface near schools of fish. This stuns the fish, making them easier to catch. Sadly, this method of fishing is often employed near coral reefs, since reefs serve as focal points where fish congregate. Following repeated blasting, destruction of the coral reef is often absolute, reducing entire reef structures to beds of rubble. Since these rubble beds provide no protection, remaining fish leave the area and algae takes over, making it difficult for coral polyps or other marine life to reestablish a foothold. Such areas become, for all practical purposes, undersea deserts, devoid of the plentiful marine life that once flourished there.

Bottom trawling, less destructive than blast fishing in its method yet much more hazardous overall due to widespread use, poses a major threat to undersea ecosystems and coral reef habitats. Bottom trawling, which employs nets dragged along the ocean floor to ensnare fish (and anything else that gets in their way), was not utilized in the past near coral reefs because the nets would become snagged and torn on coral branches. Technology has resulted in the design of nets employing rockhopper gear that can now be used on rocky sea bottoms and deep water coral reefs with relative impunity. New net designs utilizing shearing plate gear enable some control over degree of bottom contact by varying the way in which the plates are rigged. It is the author’s conjecture that, using current technology, it might be possible to design “intelligent” bottom trawl nets with dive planes and sensors mounted at the perimeter that would provide total control, enabling the nets to “fly” just above the sea bottom, thereby nearly eliminating damage to the seabed and to coral reef structures.




The direct effects of tourism and diving on coral reefs are certainly less dramatic than those of fishing, pollution and coral bleaching. Indirect effects of tourism are far more pronounced.


The crown-of-thorns starfish is a major predator of warm water corals. Like so many other predators in a balanced ecosystem, this predator is not at the topmost rung of the food chain; there are predators which prey upon the crown-of-thorns, although the list is fairly short. High on the list is the giant triton shell (Charonia tritonis). This mollusk is endangered in many areas of its range because it is highly prized by collectors. The effectiveness of the triton or any other predator in reducing populations of crown-of-thorns starfish is unknown.


Each major advance in technology brings with it a new set of challenges. Coral reef destruction presents us with a challenge which, if not promptly and effectively addressed, will leave us with a crippled ocean ecosystem, mass extinction of ocean species, and a critical depletion of marine food supplies so heavily depended upon for sustenance by humanity worldwide.

Authored by Kenneth L. Anderson.  Original article published 5 September 2005, updated 6 September 2005.

Follow links to the right to learn more about coral reef assessments, coral reef destruction and what can be done to mitigate this potentially disasterous environmental challenge. At the left margin, Related Links address topics of interest pertaining to environmental issues and earth changes. View the Technology & Science SiteMap for a complete list of technology and science-related topics.

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