NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

Keepin' the Sea Free of Debris!

How Does Marine Debris Impact Corals?

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By: Dianna Parker



It’s Corals Week at NOAA’s National Ocean Service, so we thought we’d take a moment to examine the impact marine debris has on these amazing species. (Did you know corals are animals?)

Corals are more than just a pretty aesthetic – they have real value. An incredible amount of marine life depends on healthy coral reef ecosystems, from algae to apex-predator sharks. We need them, too, for a variety of reasons:

“Healthy coral reefs are among the most biologically diverse and economically valuable ecosystems on earth, providing valuable and vital ecosystem services. Coral ecosystems are a source of food for millions; protect coastlines from storms and erosion; provide habitat, spawning and nursery grounds for economically important fish species; provide jobs and income to local economies from fishing, recreation, and tourism; are a source of new medicines, and are hotspots of marine biodiversity. They also are of great cultural importance in many regions around the world, particularly Polynesia.”

Marine debris, especially large and heavy debris, can crush and damage coral. In the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which has one of the healthiest and least disturbed coral reef ecosystems in the United States, an estimated 52 tons of derelict fishing nets accumulate every year. The nets that drift there can be enormous, and when tangled together, weigh hundreds of pounds. These net conglomerates are sometimes described as giant “purses” – they roll across the large reef structures, snagging on corals, breaking them, and collecting them within the tangle. The added coral heads can make the nets heavier than when they started. Once the nets settle, they smother and scour the substrate underneath, impeding growth.

It’s not just nets that are a problem for coral. Other larger items such as tires, shipping containers, and derelict fishing traps are also the culprits behind coral damage.

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Even our smaller, everyday litter items can make their way there and degrade the habitat. As our friends at Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary asked, do fish even like root beer?


A root beer can rests on coral.


If you are a commercial or recreational fisher, you can help corals out by disposing of your unwanted fishing gear through programs such as Fishing for Energy. Everyone can refocus on proper waste disposal, too. If we reuse more, recycle more, and waste less, the amount of our trash making it to precious coral reefs will also decrease. Trash isn’t limited to just bottles and cans – bigger items such as tires and laundry baskets need careful consideration for disposal when we are through with them.

This Corals Week, whether you’re a diver, snorkeler, or admirer from afar, or let’s take a moment to appreciate all the beauty and value these incredible corals have to offer.

Author: NOAA Marine Debris Program

The NOAA Marine Debris Program envisions the global ocean and its coasts, users, and inhabitants free from the impacts of marine debris. Our mission is to investigate and solve the problems that stem from marine debris, in order to protect and conserve our nation's marine environment, natural resources, industries, economy, and people.

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