CR File: Fire Coral
Coral reefs off Panama and Indonesia
- Coral bleaching through increased water temperatures
- Storm damage
- Colony damage caused by fishing or diving
- Pollutants entering the waters primarily from farming in coastal areas
- Climate change is likely to have significant impact through water temperature rise and increased severity of storms
Renowned for their beauty, on the whole coral reefs are a rare and fragile environment. Created over thousands of years, a coral reef is but a memorial to the life that has flourished in the warm shallow waters.
Fire Coral, named as such more for appearance and location, rather than genus, is one of the rarest and most endangered of all corals. It is actually more aligned to jellyfish, in that they reproduce asexually by releasing a gelatinous capsule containing the sperm and the egg, which forms a free-swimming larva. Its close ties to jellyfish are the reason that fire coral has a sting similar to that contained in jellyfish tentacles. Whilst not known to be fatal, the pain can last up to two weeks if stung.
The fragility of the coral belies its strength in overcoming natural temperature and storm damage as it is able to respond quickly once the storm has passed or the water temperature has returned to habitable levels. Storm fragmentation also allows the coral to create new habitats away from the primary site.
As it stands today, Indonesia and Panama hold the only known reef habitats containing Fire Coral, whilst numerous reefs contain remnants indicating previous habitation. The most significant of these is off the coast of Brazil.
Human intervention, be it direct (fishing) or indirect (climate change) have been the primary reasons for reef degradation, and therefore the destruction of marine life.
In some cases, the reefs have been deliberately destroyed by divers hunting fish for the lucrative aquarium trade. These divers have no hesitation in smashing the coral to force the small reef fish from hiding and into the nets. It is interesting to note that divers hesitate in also taking Fire Coral. Aquarium owners have found that as it reproduces asexually, it often overtakes the aquarium because of the optimal conditions.
Poor agricultural practices, silting, and pollutants have been some of the most common reasons for permanent reef degradation, and we are now finding that the permanent changes in water temperature caused by climate change are creating an environment that cannot sustain Fire Coral.
Coral Bleaching, caused by temperature change, is likely to affect Fire Coral before it impacts on true corals in the reef habitat. Most of the hundreds of existing Fire Coral colonies were destroyed through bleaching during the 1982-83 El Nino, when there was a significant and extended increase in water temperature.
The Fire Corals are critically endangered for various reasons, and the human race has a hand in each of them. Whilst we cannot reverse climate change in the short term, we should be able to save some Fire Coral through implementing sustainable farming methods – rather than the toxic and wasteful ones currently in place – and also through controls placed on the divers seeking aquarium fish. Seeing it grows so prolifically, an argument may also be made to transplant to other coral reefs where it has only recently become extinct in the hope that we can resurrect a rare and beautiful species.