Our coral reefs are dying – Part 1

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Coral reefs play a vital role in the health of our oceans.

Coral reefs play a vital role in the health of our oceans.

As you read this, I’ll be on my way to man the Discover Boating Center at the Progressive Miami International Boat Show that opens Thursday. While I’m there I’ll get to help lots of people learn about the great lifestyle we call boating.

But being in Miami will also put me near a troubling situation. Unfortunately, most of us can’t see it. That’s because it’s hidden under the water’s surface. It’s serious enough to predict a negative impact on this lifestyle of boating and fishing we’re “selling.” Simply, it’s the death of our coral reefs.

Perhaps I’m more aware because I now live in Florida where our nation’s longest reef is located. Did I care about it when I lived and boated on the Great Lakes? Probably not. But I should have because the reefs are more than just pretty colors for snorkelers and tourists to view. Much more.

Scientists now fear losing a third of the world’s coral. It really hits home when we recognize these reefs are the crucial incubators of the ocean’s ecosystem. They provide food and shelter to a quarter of all marine species. This includes fish stocks that our saltwater angling customers pursue with passion, as well as fish stocks that feed more than a billion people worldwide.

So what is a coral reef? It’s made up of tiny animals called polyps that are fed by a reciprocal relationship with algae that captures sunlight and carbon dioxide to make sugars. Damaged or dying reefs have been found from Indonesia and Hawaii in the Pacific to the Florida Keys and even in deep waters off Maine in the Atlantic. Florida’s reefs are homes to myriad fish, crabs, sponges, sea turtles, lobsters and other creatures.

While reef damage from boater’s anchors is often cited as a problem, the real problem is mass bleaching of coral around the globe. Scientists say bleaching occurs when high heat and sunshine cause the metabolism of the algae to go out of control and create toxins. It’s the polyps that give the coral the bright colors and energy. When hit by these toxins, the polyps expel the algae that provided them with both color and nutrition through photosynthesis and they turn white.

If the water cools, they can recover but the denuded corals are now subject to disease and continued stress will starve them to death. Since bleaching began appearing in South Florida in late 2014, the weakened coral, already labeled an epidemic by experts, has spread quickly. It’s believed a 35-percent loss of stony coral has already taken place north of the Florida Keys based on losses seen at sites monitored by researchers from Nova Southeastern University.

“We’re currently experiencing the longest global coral bleaching event ever observed,” C. Mark Eakin of the National oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Maryland told the New York Times recently, adding, “We’re going to lose a lot of the world’s reefs.”

In Hawaii, for example, Misaki Takabayashi, a marine scientist at the University of Hawaii in Hilo surfs the waves above the local blue rice coral there. He says: “I could see what looked like bleached white ghosts popping up off the ocean floor at me.” Similarly, in Florida, senior biologist Cory Walter from the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota says: “It almost looks like it snowed on the reefs.”

The reef problem may also be exacerbated by the nation’s algae-bloom problems, something I’ve highlighted in this blog before. The so-called dead zones in our oceans from oxygen-robbing phosphorus runoff of farm fertilizers is another factor according to a study co-authored by Lisa Levin, professor of Biological Oceanography at the Scripps Institute. It shows the two problems (bleaching and dead zones) are interconnected with common causes and potential solutions.

It leads us to ask if anything is being done about it? The death of our coral reefs has serious long-term implications for boating and fishing. So, there is some good news that actions are being taken in several quarters to deal with our dying reefs issue. I’ll highlight the who, what, when, where and why of these actions in Part 2 of this blog on Thursday. 

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