Thinking of throwing that wrapper through the window, or leaving that styrofoam container or plastic bottle on the sand? Stop now and think!

Beneath the crystal clear waters surrounding our white, sandy shores, there are small animals which preserve our beautiful beaches, protect the island???s coasts from high energy waves and ensure that there are enough reef fish, like the popular chubs, to go around. They are called corals.

Barbados is known for its beautiful coral reefs, which visitors pay thousands of dollars to come to our island to explore. Marine Biologist with the Coastal Zone Management Unit, Angelique Brathwaite, explained that corals were ???amazing animals which are a few inches in size???.

???They are very gelatinous, and small like jelly fish. They build a skeleton around their bodies and it is the skeleton that we tend to see,??? she added.

But, they are dying, and urgent attention is needed to protect them, and by extension, some of Barbados??? most critical sectors like tourism and fisheries. Ms. Brathwaite noted that decreases in coral abundance over the last 10 years were being recorded, and the numbers continued to decline.

???Our reefs are suffering??? [The situation] is urgent, and we need to do something. Our way of life will deteriorate with the deterioration of the coral reefs and we are already seeing it,??? she lamented.

The Marine Biologist explained that globally, coral reefs were not doing well, as they battled the effects of climate change, increasing levels of carbon dioxide, and ocean acidification. In addition, mass bleaching events in 1998, 2005, and 2010, along with sea level rise, present further challenges for coral reefs.

She noted that the zooanthella (the small plants that live with coral) were critical to coral nutrition, but if temperatures became too hot or too cold, or there were any other stressors, the coral would become stressed and die.

Another case for concern is that of sea level rise, especially for low-lying countries like small island developing states. This is so as corals rely on sunlight to reach the zooanthella so that they can photosynthesise.

???If it is too deep the sunlight is not going to reach them and they will die. We call it drowning and it is entirely possible that can happen with sea levels rising,??? Ms. Brathwaite pointed that they can photosynthesise. ???If it is too deep the sunlight is not going to reach them and they will die. We call it drowning and it is entirely possible that can happen with sea levels rising,??? Ms. Brathwaite pointed out.

For Barbados, these threats to our coral reefs are in addition to land-based sources of marine pollution, which include the nutrients, nitrates and phosphates found in fertilisers; sewage and rain water. The Marine Biologist said these nutrients encouraged macro algae to grow which ???could spell death??? for the reefs. She added that there were a lot of macro algae on Barbados??? fringing reefs, which were being fed by nutrients from the land.

And, while she is not advising farmers stop spraying their crops, the Marine Biologist is urging them to be more circumspect in how they used chemicals, especially as some fertilisers were better than others.

???Corals are fragile and yet resilient. When something is slightly off in the environment you see it reflecting the coral reef ecosystem,??? Ms. Brathwaite said.

But, despite their frailty, coral reefs present a force to be reckoned with in acting as a buffer zone to protect islands like Barbados against high energy waves, such as tsunamis. ???The reefs also help to minimise the intensity of wave action???so we are looking at hurricanes and storms, coral reefs are very important for that,??? she observed.

But the benefits of coral reefs do not end there ??? they also have a medicinal value. Ms. Brathwaite explained that several drugs, cures for several types of cancers, and material necessary for bone drafting, were found in the marine environment on coral reef ecosystems.

???All of this is immersed in this whole biodiversity of coral reefs. They are important for a variety of reasons ??? human health, our pallet, our stomachs and they are just amazing ecosystems for recreation and aesthetics,??? Ms. Brathwaite emphasised.

So just what is her plea? ???As a people, as a community, we need to understand how important our marine and coastal ecosystems are to us and once we have that, everyone will help us to protect them??? I just want everyone to help. [It could be] something as small as [not] dropping garbage, [or] something as big as dropping an anchor, [but] we need everybody to help us??????

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