Several recent discoveries and new action plans are raising hopes for the future of the world’s third largest coral reef system that is deteriorating along Florida’s east coast, and that’s promising news for our boating and fishing businesses.
Coral reefs are the foundation of an ecosystem with tremendous biodiversity, not to overlook they provide coastline protections against powerful storm surge and erosion. They create specialized habitats that provide breeding sites, shelter and food for numerous plants and animals.
It’s a fact that many of Florida's most popular sport fish species, like prized grouper, snapper, spiny lobster and many more, spend major parts of their lives on or around these reefs that stretch 360 miles near shore — the only shallow coral reef system in the continental U.S.
Looking ahead, we can applaud the research programs and efforts to reverse and/or rebuild Florida’s Reef Tract. Among them is a newly adopted action plan by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration that will now guide how NOAA approaches coral reef interventions in the next one to three years.
The NOAA plan encompasses four initiatives:
• Research and test priority interventions;
• Develop local or regional structured decision support;
• Review policy implications of coral interventions;
• Invest in infrastructure, research, and coordination.
According to NOAA, there is still time to save our coral reefs from their current trajectories. But this will require accelerated research and innovation, with increased and sustained investment.
Coordinated bodies of scientists, governmental officials, and other stakeholders will be critical in identifying which blend of management and interventions will maximize the reefs’ ability to endure.
Among the immediate actions that NOAA should take is providing additional funding to several Florida institutions that are already heavily invested in finding ways to halt the reefs demise. Among the leaders is the Florida Aquarium (Tampa) Center for Conservation that is focused on finding ways to reproduce coral. To date, the Aquarium team has successfully reproduced eight coral species.
“If you don’t have a living reef, you don’t have the nursery grounds,” explains the Aquarium’s Dr. Debborah Luke, senior vice president for conservation. She notes the reef effort is rooted in crisis. The reefs are being decimated by three things: warmer water temperatures, acidification and Stoney Coral Tissue Loss Disease. In the latter case, scientists are still reportedly struggling to get an understanding of the killer that leaves only blanched coral skeletons we often see on the news.
The Aquarium’s goal is to someday reproduce enough coral species in greenhouse nurseries that could replace the dead colonies. Similar efforts are also underway, for example, at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science.
The U of M team has identified nutrient pollution — led by phosphorus and nitrogen from human sources — as just one of the factors negatively impacting the coral reefs. First discovered in 2014, it has been steadily demolishing the soft tissue in stony coral species. In fact, it can rapidly kill that coral in just months of becoming infected. Finding the causal agent, still unknown, is a high priority there.
But progress is being made. At U of M, for the first time, researchers successfully transplanted laboratory-raised staghorn coral to a reef off Key Biscayne. Amazingly, the team actually watched the planted corals release their eggs and sperm — collectively called gametes — into the water where they fertilized and produced baby coral!
The surprise babies proceeded to settle on the reef and form little new polyps with mouths and tentacles. Remember, despite their looks, corals are not plants, they’re animals. And that’s how they build new colonies.
Others are also involved in programs or supporting efforts in the quest to turn the tide and save or rebuild our coral reefs. These include other universities, like Florida International University, as well as agencies such as Florida Fish & Wildlife and NOAA Fisheries. NOAA’s newest Action Plan on Coral Interventions will hopefully increase research and testing priorities, and regional coordination of successful ongoing efforts.