Swim out into the turquoise waters of the Caribbean, just beyond where the sandy sea floor gives way to massive rock formations, and a decades-long transformation has become apparent. Where a vibrant coral reef should be, there is a vast, colorless surface of almost nothingness.
Years of overfishing, boating and environmental degradation are causing coral reefs in the Caribbean—and around the world—to disappear in huge numbers. Indeed, the erosion threatens not just fish and marine life that are supported by coral ecosystems, but a vast tourism economy that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says translates into a nearly $30 billion boost to the global economy.
The United Nations and conservation groups have sounded the alarm about the ecosystem's failure and its ripple effects, which include the mass extinction of thousands of species of animals.
"Coral degradation is a global problem," said Luis Solorzano, executive director at The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit organization working in more than 35 countries and operating more than 100 marine conservation projects.
"Coral reefs help protect coastlines, which include coastal communities, hotels and other investments, from storms," Solorzano said. In fact, the stony substance minimizes the force of sea waves and helps protect an estimated 200 million people in islands and coastal states from storms and rising sea levels, according to researchers at Stanford University.