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A New Hope: Saving the Florida Reef Tract

Keri O’ Neil devotes her life to saving coral reefs, but she doesn’t sugarcoat the outlook.

When asked about reports that climate change will wipe out the world’s coral reefs without a major reduction in carbon emissions, she responded:

“Florida’s reefs are already severely depleted, and they could be wiped out before we even have the chance to reduce carbon emissions.”

Climate change is certainly bad for coral, she explained but the more immediate threat is disease, which is rapidly killing coral right now.  The rapid spread of disease could however be linked to climate change that is already occurring.

Already the Florida Reef Tract, which runs from Martin County to the Dry Tortugas, has lost more than 90 percent of its staghorn and  elkhorn corals. Many other coral species are currently in decline in the only barrier reef in the continental United States.

Consider the relentless death march of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease, first discovered off Miami in 2014.

O’ Neil says it is now killing coral species from Martin County south to the Lower Keys.

O’Neil said the Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease affects up to 25 coral species and “causes tissue to recede and fall off the skeleton. Once the coral is infected, mortality is very often 100 percent.”

Officials warn divers to take safeguards against transferring the disease by avoiding touching coral and by cleaning equipment before moving into a disease-free area.

The disease recently was detected in Looe Key, the stunningly beautiful reef off Bahia Honda State Park. It was our favorite destination when my wife and I used to dive the Keys annually years ago. When I tell O’Neil that, she advised, “If you want to see it again, you better go within the next six months to a year.”

Video courtesy of Triton Oceanic Exploration Society.

The causes of this and other diseases affecting the Keys are uncertain, but O’Neil said organic compounds such as “sewage, animal waste, pesticides, insecticides, industrial chemicals” are possible culprits.   Septic tanks, agricultural and municipal runoff and other pollutants contribute to the coral carnage. Another factor: The re-plumbing of the Everglades system, which once provided a clean and reliable source of fresh water to ecosystem.

The situation should not surprise.  I recall Dr. Gilbert L. Voss, the esteemed professor of biological oceanography at the University of Miami, warning a group of conservationists in the 1980s that runaway development, which would increase the amount pollution and boat damage, would doom the reefs without stronger protections.

Some actions were taken, but not enough to prevent today’s problem. 

Not all the world’s reefs are as endangered as the Florida Reef Tract, and O’Neil remains hopeful that some can be saved. Reefs off Cuba remain relatively healthy.

While pessimistic about the immediate future of Florida’s badly damaged reefs, O’Neil remains hopeful that one day they will be revived. That will take a commitment to addressing water pollution and climate change. It also is going to take a major investment in research, something Voss sought decades ago.

The investment is justified. Coral reefs cover only 2 percent of the ocean floor yet sustain at least 25 percent of marine life. They buffer the shore from storms and limit erosion. And they create jobs. A National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration survey found Florida’s reefs have an asset value of $8.5 billion and generate more than 70,000 jobs.

The Florida Aquarium and its research partners, including the University of Florida, are doing their part to save this invaluable resource. The Aquarium’s Apollo Beach conservation campus eventually will have eight greenhouses containing coral “arks,” where healthy corals can be grown. Two arks, funded by Aquarium revenues and donations, are operating.*

O’Neil stressed despite the massive loss of corals in the Keys, “thousands of healthy corals are left. We have to preserve them while we have the opportunity.”

By growing healthy corals in the arks, the Aquarium is preserving the genetic diversity of Florida’s Reef Tract and producing healthy corals that eventually could be re-introduced into the wild. It may be possible to grow corals resistant to disease and temperature changes.

O’Neil said research is being done to actually treat the Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease with antibiotics, which might stop its spread.

But that is probably a long-shot.

O’Neil accepts the likelihood that the Florida Coral Reef Tract won’t be restored to its former grandeur “in our lifetime.” But she and her research colleagues won’t accept a future Florida without its magnificent coral reefs.

She is optimistic that scientists ultimately will find a way to nurture the reefs back to health, even if it takes decades.  Thanks to the enterprising work being done at the Aquarium Apollo Beach facility and other institutions, she can say: “At least now we have the tools to rebuild the population.”

*Research activities occurred within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and under permit. 

 

Story by Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune

 

 

With contributions by:

Keri O'Neil, Coral Nursery Manager, The Florida Aquarium Apollo Beach