Conserving the planet's coral is a significant issue for people around the world. Some people in the Northwest see it as an issue unrelated to them. Commonly, people tend to associate coral and coral reefs only with warm, tropical waters. But some coral species live right here in the much colder, local waters of Puget Sound, bringing the issue a lot closer to home.
Among the coral species found in Puget Sound are Orange Cup, Sea Strawberry, Pale Soft Coral and Sea Fan.
Coral structures look like plants, but are actually groups of small, individual animals that live together in a colony. Corals, along with animals like sea anemones and jellyfish, belong to a group of animals, called Cnidaria, known to sting their prey. They also get food from algae living inside them. The algae make their own food from sunlight, just like a houseplant, and help feed the coral with the food they’ve made.
Coral colonies come in two basic types: hard or soft.
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Hard corals secrete a calcium skeleton over a long period of time that helps hold up the living colony. Then, when the colony dies, the hard structure remains and can form lagoons or even entire islands. Eventually, when waves break down the remains, they create sand and beaches.
Soft corals are supple and leathery, often looking feathery.
While coral reefs are living, they are high in biodiversity, meaning they provide life-sustaining habitat for many different kinds of animals. But they are also very delicate. If the waters get too cloudy, too polluted, too warm, too acidic, or too cold, the corals can die, affecting all the animals that depend on them.
Humans all over the world can help corals thrive by doing simple things in their daily lives. Easy ways to help include keeping local streams, lakes, bays and oceans clean by not littering or dumping chemicals down the drain. Even remembering to turn off the lights helps coral because when carbon dioxide is stored in ocean waters, it converts to acid, which can harm coral health.
Some ways to help might not happen daily, but still can have a significant effect. Divers and snorkelers can help coral by not touching corals in the waters both here and abroad; because corals are such delicate animals, they are easily damaged by physical contact. Finally, travelers and shoppers can do their part by not purchasing souvenirs or gifts that are made from coral.
This month’s column was written by the staff at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium.