Saving Florida’s Coral Reefs
By Kelly Dean
“Just be careful not to scratch yourself on the coral,” my guide says. It’s always the last thing divers say to one another before submerging near a coral reef. It is good advice. It is an unpleasant experience when you scratch yourself. But in reality, it’s always advice you disregard when you’re mentally flabbergasted by the reef’s incredible beauty. Below water, the reef is like a sci-fi movie.
And above water, the fishing is simply ridiculous.
But now there’s a more important warning about the coral. That warning is: support efforts to slow climate change or there might not be any more coral to see.
Like all climate change debates, the reefs have their fair share of differing views.
The Great Barrier Reef — Australia
The reef problem first came to my attention when I read about severe coral bleaching on the 1400 mile long Great Barrier Reef (GBR) in Australia in summer 2016. Because this reef is the Southern Hemisphere’s counterpart to the Florida Coral Reefs in the Northern Hemisphere, it gave me pause. Certainly, ocean topography, currents and weather differ, but what happens there could happen here.
Coral and algae have a symbiotic relationship. The algae live in the coral. The coral needs the algae’s nutrients and “mini house guests” to survive. It is the algae that create the rainbow of colors associated with coral reefs. But the coral and algae relationship is highly sensitive to water temperature changes and if that change is enough, the coral expels the algae to protect itself. However, the coral is then deprived of its nourishment and it goes into a sort of stasis, called coral bleaching. If the proper conditions don’t return quickly enough, the coral can die.
If enough coral dies, the reef disappears and all the marine life that relies upon it also disappears; that could be up to 25 percent of all related marine life. This includes a marine food chain ranging from microscopic plants to whale-sized mammals — including whales, by the way.
Pacific Ocean temperatures have been going up for some time and Australia’s famous reef is suffering for it, so much so, many scientists think much of the damage is irreversible using current efforts. With two years of bleaching in a row, some think it’s too late for the Great Barrier Reef, period.
That doesn’t mean all scientist believe we should be gloom and doom about the coral reefs’ future. The Washington Post reports that a cluster of scientist, who published in Nature recently, say we should think about the changed ecosystem as being more different than doomed. In typical Douglas Adams fashion, they’re saying “don’t panic.” We can adapt; that’s what science is for.
Those who doubt global warming’s impact on the GBR bleaching look to increased El Nino activity, erratic Pacific currents, bacterial invasion and invasive predators. Certainly, these conditions have an additive effect, but to what extent each perpetrator is responsible for the bleaching is unknown.
For those who need a dollar figure, this Washington Post article says the Great Barrier Reef has an annual impact of over $42 billion. Yes, that’s a “b” for “billion.” Even if you’re not one to line up behind environmental issues, the economic impact here is also profound.
The Florida Reefs
Florida’s reefs in the Atlantic are experiencing bleaching as well and more is expected during summer months. Florida’s coral reef ecosystem starts with a scattered group at the Dry Tortugas, then moves east to Marquesas Keys and stretches all along the south side of the Florida Keys, bending northeast up the coast through Biscayne Bay, then more scattered corals pop up on the East Coast all the way up to the St. Lucie Inlet.
It is the third-largest coral reef ecosystem in the world.
Most problems have simple causes. Solutions to revive the Everglades, for instance, are relatively simple: get freshwater flowing south again to replenish the water-starved ecosystem and let nature fix itself. The solution is simple, but implementation is hard.
Saving Florida’s coral reefs has a simple solution as well: stop warming the planet with greenhouse gasses so the coral have a chance to thrive. 25 percent of marine life depends upon it. It’s the least we can do: create a zero-net impact on the environment. But the implementation of this task is even more daunting because it requires a worldwide effort, not just the United States and not just Floridians.
Citizens and scientists can stand on the shore perplexed, helpless, with their arms crossed – cussing at the sand. Yet until humans make things happen – nothing happens.
It’s this way anytime something becomes political. We just have to fix this stuff. We just have to fix it.