Shallow Coral Reefs (within Benthic Cover)

Shallow-water coral reefs are more than just pretty places to go snorkeling and scuba diving. These sensitive areas are some of the most biologically rich and economically valuable ecosystems on earth. Coral reefs provide food, jobs, protection, and income to billions of people worldwide, but they are in danger from threats such as pollution, climate change, and overfishing, making their preservation a top concern.   So why should ocean planners pay attention to coral distribution data?

  1. Coral reefs are important for fisheries. Coral reefs provide a place for a variety of fish species to breed, as well as a place for their offspring to grow. The fish that grow and live on coral reefs are a significant food source for over a billion people worldwide—many of whom live far from the reefs that feed them. Approximately half of all federally managed fisheries in the United States depend on coral reefs and related habitats for a portion of their life cycles. For this reason, a coral reef can be designated as a Habitat Area of Particular Concern (HAPC), which protects the habitat of a species of fish. In addition, coral reefs support marine biodiversity, produce economic benefits from tourism, and provide valuable protection from coastal erosion and damage during storms.
  2. Coral reefs are vulnerable to nearshore construction. Much like seagrasses and other plants and animals that occupy the seafloor, coral reefs are susceptible to activities such as digging ditches or creating new channels. Even changing the drainage or marine flushing of an area may have a negative impact on corals.
  3. Coral reefs are closely monitored for conservation. In 1998, President Clinton created the Coral Reef Task Force, which in combination with the Coral Reef Conservation Act of 2000 tasked NOAA with the monitoring and conservation of coral reefs. NOAA’s coral reef monitoring programs are extensive and include reefs that lie within marine protected areas. In addition, some coral species, such as elkhorn (Acropora palmata), are listed as threatened and therefore are afforded protections under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
  4. Coral reefs are culturally important. Native Hawaiians consider themselves intimately connected to the sea and to coral reefs. In the Hawaiian creation chant (the Kumulipo), the mythological origins of all life, including human life, began from a coral polyp. These feelings of deep connections are shared throughout the Pacific and Caribbean regions.

Quick Caveats. In the past, coral reefs were mapped and managed in small geographies. States and other organizations would map individual coral species and monitor their success, making the data fragmented and inconsistent. In this data set, NOAA has stepped up to create consistency in coral mapping. These NOAA maps are intended to support landscape-level assessment and inventory efforts, but they do not show the large variety of corals present in a small area. Because corals often overlap and share space, researchers interested in species-level information will need to seek out additional data sets.

Data-Source Experts
Tim Battista, Oceanographer, NOAA National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science
Jennifer Koss, Director, NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program

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