07/09/2013 10:07 am ET Updated Sep 08, 2013

The Sea Wall Nature Gave You

Last summer I went scuba diving on the coral reefs inside Mexico's Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve about two hours south of Cancun. The coastline there gets thrashed by storms frequently, but I was impressed by how vibrant the reefs were. Huge schools of snapper darted by, and there were many groupers, lobsters and cuttlefish. But most striking were big branches of new coral sprouting from the broken, storm-damaged parts. These had all grown back since the devastation wrought by Hurricane Wilma, a Category 5 storm, in 2005.

Healthy living reefs act as natural sea walls. They break incoming waves and protect our coasts, and when they are working and managed well, they replenish themselves. This protected reef in a remote area was clearly doing its job, but reefs closer to people are rarely in such good shape. Nearer to Cancun, for example, coastal resort development has increased erosion and pollution, which is smothering the reefs and mangroves.

That sounds like a conservation problem, but it's a major threat to people and property, too. Most people live near a coast. Aside from natural beauty, the seas offer us enormous benefits in terms of food and transport and helping to moderate the climate. I'm a surfer, that's my excuse. Nevertheless, living so close to the ocean poses serious costs from storms and flooding. Around Cancun, more than $70 million has been spent replenishing the white sand that waves are now washing away in the absence of healthy reefs.

But it's not just about money, it's also about people. Recently, I was approached by disaster aid groups to help find where coastal habitats might most help vulnerable people. Together in the 2012 World Risk Report, we showed that around the world, about 200 million people likely benefit from the wave-reducing services of coral reefs. Many of those people live in densely populated island nations such as Indonesia and the Philippines.

It turns out that the United States is in the top 10 list of nations too. Here in America we have more than 7 million people who enjoy reduced risks from waves and storms thanks to the unseen workings of coral reefs. Where are these people? They are mainly in the greater Miami-Dade area and its communities. This metropolis harbors some of most exposed and at-risk cities and towns. For decades, this metropolis has benefitted from the reefs and mangroves that surrounded it, but sadly, a lot of coral reefs are on life support. Over the past 25 years, the world has lost about 30 percent of its corals because of coastal development, polluted runoff and climate-induced bleaching. But even in the Caribbean and South Florida, which has suffered some of the worst of the damage, we still have a lot to work with. A coral reef is just a living skin of corals on top of a limestone skeleton. So when a coral reef dies, the structure is still there. Our job is to regrow the millions of tiny coral polyps to keep the reef together before the waves break it apart. That's right: It is possible to regrow coral reefs. Together with partners, we are already doing it in the Florida Keys and Virgin Islands, where we are raising staghorn and elkhorn corals to replenish damaged reefs.

Again, that may sound like a conservation project, but done right it can make people and property safer. Several years ago, the Conservancy began building oyster reefs in front of marsh preserves along the Gulf Coast. We mastered the design of these reefs to serve as breakwaters, and we created tools such as Coastal Resilience so other people could do the same thing. Once homeowners started seeing how well the reefs were reducing erosion, they wanted reefs to help protect their coastlines, too. The US Army Corp of Engineers (CoE) has helped cut the permitting time for living breakwaters nearly in half as compared artificial defenses in Mississippi and Alabama; yes the CoE is helping nature too. The coast now has miles of restored reefs. If this work were only a conservation project, we couldn't come close to that scale of interest or support for restoring reefs.

However if we are going to really help people, then conservationists are going to have to change how we approach our work, too. We can't afford to focus only on remote and pristine reefs. We are going to have to get right in thick of it -- I mean right in front of our towns and cities -- if we want to do the most good.

Based on an essay originally published in Nature Conservancy magazine, June 2013.

Michael W. Beck is the lead marine scientist at The Nature Conservancy and a Pew Marine Fellow.

The Sea Wall Nature Gave You