Why should coral reef conservation matter to us? About a third of marine fish use and/or occupy 0.2% of the ocean-in our coral reefs. Over 93% of our planet's reefs have already been damaged from the activities of people, including over-harvesting, development, and pollution. If that isn't scary enough, we get over 10% of our fish harvest from reef zones. If you aren't troubled about preserving the integrity of coral reefs for ethical reasons, you should be concerned about preserving them for the sake of a sustainable fish harvest.
Currently, there are many ways to help conserve a reef. One way which we all immediately think of is to stop illegal and irresponsible harvesting. There are, for obvious reasons, not very good records on the amount of illegal harvesting being performed on our coral reefs. This is especially true in third world countries. There are several organizations which deal with responsible harvesting. For example, the Marine Aquarium Council was established to create a set of voluntary standards for those in the harvesting trade. According to their website, they "promote sustainability through the development and deployment of best practices, standards, and certification for those engaged in the collection and care of marine ornamentals". They do this by educating and supporting those involved in the harvesting process, namely, the locals.
However, today's aquarists have the option to buy aquacultured coral. These corals are captive bred, so you have the ability to purchase corals with the peace of mind that the reefs remain unharvested. Aquacultured corals are typically disease free, as they are grown in a controlled environment. Another benefit is that the captive bred corals do not undergo the same stress as being transported from the tropics. For the aquarist interested in supporting the aquaculture trade, the American Marinelife Dealers Association, provides lists of the wholesalers that deal in captive bred corals, as well as other marine species. Their organization is made up of voluntary members interested in promoting the ethical treatment and sale of marine life.
Another way in which our reefs are damaged is from expanding tourism. Tourism is the world's largest industry, and that includes nature based tourism. These days, many out of the way places are taking advantage of marine tourism. The resulting construction and traffic, including runoff from the building sites and dropped anchors on live corals, has a detrimental effect on our reef systems. Responsible tourism management can lead to better economic and environmental sustainability.
One particular organization, The Coral Reef Alliance, http://www.coral.org/, or CORAL, as they call themselves, is dedicated to conserving the reefs with the help of local communities. According to their website, they are the only international, non-profit organization that partners with the local people to help conserve coral reefs. Specifically, CORAL targets local communities with marine recreation tourism to create MPA's (marine protected areas). They engage the local population, teaching them how to manage their marine tourism in a responsible manner while still growing economically.
Some marine conservation groups dedicate themselves instead to observation. These groups contribute a considerable amount of resources and time to monitoring our reef systems. Reef Keeper International is one of those groups. They trend data over many years to determine the correlations among reef health, global climate change, over-fishing, runoff, tourism development, and a number of other factors. Their data can also help us assess the efficacy of current conservation efforts. According to their website, monitoring activities significantly deter environmental abuse and help promote local conservation behaviors.
No matter how you choose to enjoy coral reefs, remember that it is made possible through the efforts of many volunteers around the world who are dedicated to the conservation of these habitats. Aquarium hobbyists are in the unique position to benefit our coral reefs through promoting exposure to and education about marine life.