When I met with Randi Rotjan, Associate Scientist at the New England Aquarium (NEAQ) I thought I would enlist her for a bit of “coral 101” so that I could understand a bit about the reef system and Marine Protected Areas that will be discussed in our upcoming Women Working for Oceans event “Take Only Pictures, Leave Only Footprints” on April 2nd. Randi is engaging and her eyes completely light up when she is talking about her favorite subject, coral and the Phoenix Island Marine Protected Area (PIPA). Randi and her team from NEAq have been visiting and exploring the Phoenix Islands and the surrounding area studying its remarkable biodiversity and resilience. Its reefs, in particular, have become a topic of awe because, as they have been protected, there has been a significant recovery of species and marine life, including coral. “The area has become a benchmark for understanding how coral reefs will respond to global change”.
One of the major threats to coral reefs is overgrowth by algae, but I soon found out that not all algae are bad. There are 3 major types of algae on a coral reef, and as part of the “coral 101”, I got the rundown on all of them: symbiotic algae, crustose coralline algae, and fleshy macroalgae. Corals are animals, but they are also partly “vegetable” and “mineral”. The vegetable part is the symbiotic algae that live inside coral tissue and use sunlight for photosynthesis, which helps feed the coral animal and obtain the carbon needed to create the coral skeleton. Crustose coralline algae is also generally helpful for corals – pink and cement-like, it is the substrate that baby corals search for when deciding on a place to live. The third type of algae, fleshy macroalgae, is also a natural part of a coral reef ecosystem, but when mother nature gets out of whack, things break down. Not enough herbivorous fish and the macroalgae take over by overgrowing corals and stealing their light and space. Water too cold or too warm can also impact the delicate balance between corals and macroalgae-ugh. So can other disasters. It is a fragile world down there, and a confusing one, but understanding the many players on the reef is part of the fun! After all, the diversity of organisms is a major contributor to the beauty and function of reefs.
Some of us are lucky enough to be able to go on vacation and look at coral reefs with our families. Randi remembers her first site of a coral reef off the coast of Florida while visiting her grandparents as a teen. We talked about seeing coral reefs today and I asked how I might educate my family about their decline when Randi’s insight took over. “When we see a reef for the first time, it is beautiful to us. Because it is new,exciting and the ocean is so fascinating, we imprint that first experience in our brains as our calibration point for what is ours-our coral reef. It takes a long time and education to understand that the reef was so much more vital years ago.” Randi’s excitement about her research of PIPA rewards her with a picture of what reefs are really suppose to look like and gives us hope about how a reef can recover with protection from overfishing, pollution and habitat destruction.
“We have a window of opportunity right now while there is still some beautiful marine life to still see and save. Right now, there are enough corals still remaining that could rebound and be rebuilt naturally if we protect them. But once they are gone, we are out of luck.”
Come see Randi (along with photographer Keith Ellenbogen and his beautiful photos) at our April 2nd Event and learn more about coral and the Marine Protected Area of the Phoenix Islands.
Below are some links to more information about coral: