Tackling Negligence with the Coral Conservation Club

Journalist: Kaitlin Stanton | Editor: Trish Schranck | Photographer & Videographer: Anne Flaherty

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The planet as we know it is rapidly declining into a state of emergency. With climate change knocking insistently at our door and the decline of many species occurring right before our eyes, many scientists stress the lack of time we as a species, and the planet as a whole, have left. One of the most terrifying casualties of this emergency is the loss of our precious coral reefs.

Corals reefs are essential ecosystems to the overall stability of our oceans for numerous reasons. Corals themselves are small filter-feeding animals that live, breathe, and compete for space. Each piece of coral, known as a colony, is made up of hundreds of individual polyps, and these colonies serve as the “buildings” in the aquatic “cities” that the corals build simply by growing. Coral reefs are often thought of as the rain forests of the sea because they house approximately 75 percent of life in the oceans, despite covering less than two percent of the ocean floor. They provide shelter, food, and structure to numerous species on a global scale, and they have served humans as protective storm barriers and economic havens for decades.

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Unfortunately, corals worldwide are dying rapidly as a result of “bleaching” events. When temperatures or other abiotic conditions stray from the specific environmental parameters corals need, they become extremely stressed. The coral polyps respond to this stress by expelling their symbiotic zooxanthellae--small, photosynthetic organisms that provide the corals with sugars, nutrients, and their brilliant colors--and as a result, the corals turn bright white and starve to death due to lack of food and nutrition. Numerous coral diseases, such as the white, black, and yellow band diseases, have also begun to ransack species across the globe, and these diseases contribute heavily to declining coral numbers worldwide.

As one of the most essential organisms on the planet, efforts to end coral bleaching and subsequent coral death are more crucial than ever, and Eckerd College’s Coral Conservation Club aims to play a valuable role in those efforts. Since chartering in September of 2017, the Coral Conservation Club is one of Eckerd’s newest organizations. They are the only campus club specifically focusing on tackling this major root of the planet’s environmental degradation. The founding members consist of four passionate students: Chase Cushman ’21, Tiffany Croucher ’19, Andrew Blaurock ’21, and Rachel Biton ’20. Cushman and Croucher began the club as a kickstarter to help encourage the college to focus on and get excited about coral conservation after noting a lack of coral-centric restoration efforts on Eckerd’s campus.

“Everyone cares about dolphins and sharks, but no one thinks about what’s really important in the bigger picture, which are the coral reefs,” Blaurock said during an interview about why the club is so important at this time in Eckerd’s history. Along with educating the Eckerd community about the impacts of coral bleaching, the club aims to educate both Eckerd students and the general public about the importance of coral reefs, as well as why restoration and conservation efforts are so imperative now rather than later.

“We initially wanted to bring about efforts to educate Eckerd and the public. We all want to help save the planet, and it starts with coral,” Biton voiced. “Corals are facing serious threats, due to both natural and human causes, mainly pollution.”

The club started out by focusing on reducing the plethora of trash the average person throws out, much of which often makes its way into the oceans and negatively impacts organisms residing in coral reef ecosystems. During their club meetings, they help their members set monthly goals to reduce the amount of single use plastic waste. The club also emphasizes the importance of careful and ethical disposal of plastic waste, and they exemplify this by collecting plastic straws and plastic bags at meetings as well.

“Little steps will have a big impact,” Biton insists.

Along with their monthly eco-friendly goals, the Coral Conservation Club actively organizes beach cleanups. They have hosted three cleanups thus far, and they have established a partnership with sponsor 4Ocean, a global movement focusing on removing ocean trash and organizing beach cleanups.

“We had a really good turnout for both events, and we’ve collected a total of 89 lbs of trash so far.” Blaurock said. The club heads hope to collect 100 lbs or more of trash during their next beach cleanup.

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“Having people get together and pick up 50 lbs of trash in one hour brings a lot of fulfillment,” Croucher told us. “It’s amazing that we can make a difference, even as undergrads.”

When asked about who they believe will be most effective in coral restoration, each of the club leaders immediately stated they believe members of their own generation will have the biggest impact.

“I would hope we’d bring the most [change]. Our generation is the one faced with the severity of this issue,” said Cushman. “The corals are dying now, and when they’re gone, we’re in trouble.”

This collective responsibility to enact positive change felt amongst the club heads is why their club is so committed to educating current Eckerd students on the issues and solutions to coral reef degradation. They hope to accomplish this through more beach cleanups, their monthly eco-friendly goals, and eventually they hope to host larger trips to research facilities and aquariums that focus on coral research, education, and conservation. The club heads also hope to raise enough funds to adopt a reef in the near future. The club heads are particularly concerned with how little people throughout the country know about coral reefs. From what they can tell, people tend to understand that the reefs are dying, but they do not understand why it is crucial to prevent their extinction.

“Our generation needs to step up and do something, and whatever we can. We are the last hope on this planet for reefs,” said Blaurock. “We can start by reducing plastic waste.”

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We are responsible for the state of our planet, and it’s important to take action now rather than later. Before we can worry about whether our planet will be livable in the future, coral reefs need our immediate attention, and the Coral Conservation Club is a unique Eckerd organization striving to convey a powerful message to encourage our generation to get involved in the conservation and restoration of coral reefs.

If you are interested in contributing to the recovery of our planet’s reefs, be sure to check out the Coral Conservation Club’s Instagram page, @coralconservationclub, to stay updated with their upcoming activities and efforts!