You may have heard about coral reefs in the news recently. With climate change affecting ocean temperatures, coral reefs are declining in size and number. Seeing all of this you might've asked yourself, ‘Why are coral reefs important?' 

There are a variety of ecological, environmental, and economic reasons, but it all comes down to how diverse they are. 

This guide will go through what coral reefs are and why coral reefs are important.

What Are Corals Reefs?

coral reef

Before we can understand why coral reefs are important, we have to understand what they are. The name is as straightforward as it sounds. A coral reef is an underwater ecosystem made out of reefs of coral. 

Coral is an animal related to jellyfish and sea anemones. They produce hard exoskeletons similar to a shell to protect themselves. These exoskeletons are made out of carbonate and make up the rock-like structure you may be familiar with when you think of coral. The most common type of coral is stony coral, which clusters in groups to form reefs.

Reefs are most common in warm, moving water, especially if it's sunny and clear. 

Coral reefs, especially those located in shallow waters are some of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth. Even though they take up less than 0.1% of the world's ocean area, they provide habitat to more than 25% of all marine life. 

Part of how they're able to do this is that they grow well in areas that don't have many nutrients in the water because mosses and small creatures then live in them and become food for larger animals, entire food webs can grow in areas where they otherwise wouldn't.

Why Coral Reefs are Important


Why are coral reefs important? Because they provide protection to marine animals and the coastline and the effects of this have an impact on the surrounding areas. 

Coastal Barriers

It might sound shocking, but many small islands would not be able to exist without reefs, this is because coral reefs protect shorelines by acting as a natural barrier against waves and storms. When there is a lot of energy building up through the water, they dissipate on the reef before hitting the shore, so they impact the shore with less force. That means that when there are serious storms coral reefs lower the damage that waves do.

Reefs also help protect islands by preventing erosion. By lessening the impact of waves, they stop the earth from being removed during large storms. 


As impactful as they are for protecting coasts, coastal reefs are even more important as habitats. They provide varied habitats for many marine animals including:

  • Shrimp
  • Jellyfish
  • Fish
  • Seabirds
  • Starfish
  • Sea snakes

And that's just to name a few species. Beyond the more recognizable animals, they create a habitat for many smaller animals and the organisms that they live off of. Part of the reason for this is that a reef’s place in the environment fills it with food resources. In the shallow waters, they're often located between either mangroves, tree-filled coastal reasons that have their roots submerged during high tides, and slightly deeper waters filled with kelp and other seaweeds. 

This works because the coral reefs protect those plant-filled areas from strong waves that would disturb the animals that live there, as well as prevent erosion in them as well. In return, the seaweed and mangroves protect the coral from dirt, pollution, and fresh water. 

Because of this mutually beneficial relationship not only do reefs improve marine populations in surrounding areas but also those plant–filed areas infuse the reef with more nutrients and small animals that let the population of the reefs increase as well.


The fish and other sea life that live in the reef provide an important source of food for people in the coastal areas. 

Seafood has always been a vital source of vitamins and most importantly protein. It's part of the reason so many major cities began along the water. It's still important to millions of people today because it's a way for everyone to get access to protein without needing a farm or feed for land animals like cows and chickens. 

Think about it; all you need to fish for yourself is a line and a little bit of bait. If you live in the right area, you might have access to crabs or shellfish that are even easier to catch.

Reefs are even more important at the larger commercial fishing scale, which provides jobs for millions of people and can be a major industry in many regions. Even deep-water commercial fish you wouldn't expect to be impacted by the coastal coral reefs depend on the effect the reefs have. Some deep-water seafood species, like lobster and grouper, use the reefs as protection when they reproduce. Other fish like tuna use the reef fish as part of their diet.

All of this fishing plays a big role in a country's economy. In Southeast Asia, coral reef fishing is worth over $2 billion every year. 

And in the U.S. the government has valued fishing from coral reefs to be over $100 million yearly. 

Economic Development

Coral reefs are fundamental to many coastal economies, but not just because of fishing. The natural beauty of coral reefs, from the strange and colorful reefs themselves to the many different kinds of sea life that live in them, make them a major tourist attraction.

Think about all the ways a tourist who's come to see the reef spends money. They have to get a hotel, get transportation, eat at restaurants, and see other attractions all on top of getting the boat to get to the reef and a tour guide to lead them there. In this way, reefs can contribute a lot to an economy by creating an entire tourism infrastructure. 


As beneficial as the reefs can be, all of the traffic they draw can cause damage on top of the many threats coral reefs already face. Tourists visiting the reefs can cause damage to them physically by walking on them or scraping them with boats. The extra traffic can also cause harmful pollution.

Coral reefs also face many other threats including:

  • Ocean acidification
  • Sea temperature rise
  • Blast fishing
  • Disease

All of that commercial fishing can be damaging to coral as well. One particularly harmful fishing method is called bottom trawling. Using this method, fishermen pull a large net along the bottom of the sea floor to catch floor sea life like lobsters and crabs. Some conservation groups estimate that up to 50% of what they catch is coral that the metal on the net machinery has smashed into pieces.


People know how important coral is. That's why there are numerous efforts to regrow damaged coral reefs for conservation and sustainability.

One method used is the enacting of laws to create Marine Protected Areas. These are areas where human activity is limited to prevent the waste and secondhand destruction that it can cause.

Another method used for conservation is called coral farming. Using this method coral's are grown on non-toxic concrete blocks in a controlled environment. After they grow, they're planted onto the reefs. This method works by growing the coral when they are young and most at risk. By handling them in a controlled environment when they're most vulnerable many of the risks to their health, like pollution and acidification, can be removed. 

Of course, much of the environment is connected. Because of runoff, materials on land that rainwater washes into the waterways, the environmental health of the land plays an important part in marine conservation too. So, efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and land pollution are vital to protecting coral reefs as well.

Final Thoughts on Coral Reefs


So, why are coral reefs important? They're important because they are the foundation of coastal marine life. Coral reefs provide homes to thousands of species of sea animals that rely on them for shelter and food in sandy beach water where there aren't many other options.

Since reefs attract so many different kinds of sea life, even sea creatures that don't live near them still depend on them for food.

Humans depend on them for much more than that. On top of the role they play in commercial fishing, they also provide a source of tourism and economic growth, as well as protection against storm surges. Without coral reefs, it would be difficult for many island communities to grow the way that they have.

So the next time you sit down to enjoy a seafood dinner, you can appreciate the role that coral reefs played in getting it to you.