Most coral reefs today are between 5,000 and 10,000 years old, but with recent climate changes and disastrous pollution events triggering mass coral bleaching, a great percentage of these critical species won’t live to see the next 20 years. One main cause of death for these beautifully vibrant reefs is the awful washwater of those noxious scrubbers we’ve been talking so much about.
With over 800 different species, coral reefs support more than 25% of all marine life, providing a crucial habitat and nourishment for innumerable fish and invertebrate species. Coral reefs are vital to humans as well, providing a food source for over 1 billion people around the world, and accounting for centuries of literature, art, and cultural rituals. Coral reefs are so valuable that they played a violent role in history, serving as currency in the transatlantic slave trade.
That being said, death of coral reefs intensifies concern for the fate of humanity and marine ecosystems.
10 years ago, only 11 ships were scrubber-equipped, which is why the effects of toxic scrubber washwater on marine life weren’t worrisome. Now, with over 4,000 ships fitted with harmful scrubbers, scientists are seeing a correlation in foul scrubber washwater’s contribution to mass bleaching events. As we know, filthy scrubber washwater can be 100,000 times more acidic than seawater, devastating coral life through chemical bleaching and nutrient pollution when exposed to high levels of acidity.
The Great Barrier Reef single-handedly gets 32 million tons of abominable scrubber wastewater dumped on it by ships each year as it lies on a major shipping route for coal.
This dirty washwater consisting of lethal chemicals like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) strips corals of their nutrients resulting in bleaching and disruption to their fish and algae symbiotic relationships. Bleaching on its own won’t kill coral reefs but transitioning from coral to algae dominance impedes the growth of new coral colonies, initiating fish migration in search of new food sources and fish mortality when new food sources can’t be found.
Consequently, there have been at least six mass coral bleaching events since 1998, four of those occurring after 2016. In 2020’s “World’s Coral Reef Report,” 14% of the world’s coral reefs had died since 2009, and in 2022 alone, 91% of coral reefs exhibited bleaching. Mass bleaching is currently projected to occur yearly by 2040, causing coral extinction by 2100 if drastic change is not taken to promote coral recovery between bleaching events.
With rising fear for these essential organisms, Marine Protected Areas (MPA) and Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas (PSSA) such as the Great Barrier Reef have been declared to help increase survival and reproduction rates as coral larvae are able to drift into damaged reefs and help them repopulate.
There are no consequences, yet, for ships that break regulations as they sail through protected areas and deposit their vile washwater directly into the corals’ home. But as bills are passed like the new California law requiring companies to report their emissions, there is optimism that the damaging effects from these poisonous scrubbers will be exposed, ensuing a ban altogether while there is still time to save these marvelous coral reefs.