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Coral Reefs: Spills and Other Threats

Aerial image of oil slick moving towards coral reef (from 1986 spill at Bahia las Minas refinery in Panama).
Oil slicks moving onto coral reefs at Galeta at low tide after the Bahia las Minas refinery spill, Panama, in April 1986. (John Cubit)

Coral reefs are highly productive and diverse ecosystems that are not only beautiful but are also very valuable economically and environmentally. Today, many coral reefs are suffering degradation from a variety of causes, including climate change, pollutants, overfishing, development, and physical disturbances. Coral habitats are also vulnerable to impacts from oil spills.

Because these systems are sensitive, we are especially careful to respond appropriately to spills or potential spills in these areas. By understanding how our actions can affect coral reef ecosystems, we can do a better job of protecting them from further harm.

Resources for Spill Responders

Oil Spills in Coral Reefs: Planning and Response Considerations: Summarizes current research on coral reefs for oil spill response decision makers in coral reef regions. For readers with some science or response background.

Introduction to Coastal Habitats and Biological Resources for Spill Response: Training manual covering physical, geological, and biological considerations relevant to oil spill response and cleanup. Chapter 3, Sensitivity of Coastal Environments to Oil, includes sensitivity information for coral reef communities (pp. 67-68).

Characteristic Coastal Habitats: Choosing Spill Response Alternatives: This is a job aid designed for anyone who needs to decide if, where, when, and how to remove oil from coastal habitats. An excerpt from this document, Subtidal Habitats: Coral Reefs [PDF, 187 KB], briefly describes coral reefs, their predicted behavior when oiled, and some response considerations.

Toxicity of Oil to Reef-Building Corals: a Spill Response Perspective Report [PDF, 282 KB]: A 2001 report that explores spill case histories, field studies, and experimental studies to assess the acute and chronic impacts of oil on coral.

More Information about Coral Reefs

NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Program: Find a wealth of resources on coral ecosystems, threats to them, conservation programs, and opportunities to protect corals.

National Ocean Service Education Discovery Kit: Corals: Explore this tutorial on the biology of and threats to corals, a roadmap to related web resources, and a series of coral-related lesson plans developed for students at the high school level.

Dispersants: A Guided Tour - Environmental Impacts: Coral reefs can be harmed by dispersed oil, so dispersant use in the vicinity of coral reefs is usually restricted to areas where dispersed oil is unlikely to contact coral.

IncidentNews: Browse news and information on current and historical spills and incidents, including those involving corals.

F/V Jin Shiang Fa Incident: History Detail: Read the report for the fishing vessel Jin Shiang Fa, which ran aground on the west side of Rose Island, approximately 150 miles east of American Samoa, on October 14, 1993. The incident resulted in an oil spill and damage to a coral reef.

Abandoned and Derelict Vessels: Abandoned vessels pose a significant threat to the NOAA Trust resources through physical destruction of coral habitats and dispersion of toxic chemicals and gear.

Last updated Monday, January 13, 2020 3:54pm PST