Coral reefs the world over are increasingly under threat. Scientists say rising sea temperatures, ocean acidification, and even a chemical commonly found in sunscreen are contributing to the decline in reef health.
How are our reefs holding up?
An abundance of sunshine draws vacationers to Cayman’s shores like moths to a flame, and to protect themselves from the sweltering Cayman sun. Many slather themselves with a product that could contain a chemical proven deadly to corals – oxybenzone.
“If it does have oxybenzone, then it is confirmed to have an impact on the coral reef creatures, and yeah, literally it does kill them at very very low levels,” said DOE Deputy Director Tim Austin.
He said research published almost a decade ago first identified oxybenzone as a coral killer.
“The awareness that has come up as a result of the scientific research has sunk in to the industry, a lot of them do you say you know, reef friendly, coral friendly, or not damaging to the environment,” said Mr. Austin.
In a non-scientific sampling of sunscreens readily available here in Cayman, Cayman 27 found some sunscreens with oxybenzone and some without.
A close look at the ingredients list showed that even some so-called ‘reef safe’ sunscreens contain oxybenzone.
“Once it’s in the water, these things have a tendency to accumulate, and it can impact quite dramatically as they literature has shown,” said Mr. Austin.
Mr. Austin admits sun protection is no longer considered optional equipment for a day at the beach.
He said alternatives do exist for consumers that care about coral reef health.
“Definitely technology is moving towards helping people make the right choice,” said Mr. Austin.
While simply paying attention to sunscreen labely is unlikely to save the world’s reefs by itself, Mr. Austin said it is one less strike against corals.
“Anything that you can do at this point relieves some of that stress is beneficial, it’s doubtful that just switching sunscreens will save reefs, but it definitely has the ability to influence a reef’s recovery,” said Mr. Austin.
Last year, the state of Hawaii made headlines with a proposal to ban sunscreens containing oxybenzone. If a ban were instituted, it would be the first US state to do so.