Global warming, ships and boats coming aground, careless divers and natural diseases are threatening coral reefs globally at an alarming rate and the fragile reefs off the coast of Florida are no difference. In a recent article in the Miami Herald, the topic of whether or not human involvement can help make these reefs more resilient to climate and human factors.
This week the the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force meets in Fort Lauderdale to see what, if anything can be done. The task force is a a multi-agency, multi-state group has the goal to protect some of the most important and threatened habitats in the world. The Florida reefs may seem vibrant to visitors but looking back 10 or 20 years ago and they will pale in comparison.
The team is contemplating a “reef resilience’’ program that is being looked at in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, where the focus shifts from just monitoring sick or dying corals to doing more to try and save the reefs.
“What we’re trying to do is help nature help itself,’’ said Chris Bergh, director of coastal and marine resilience for The Nature Conservancy, who coordinates a program that includes federal, state and university researchers as well as environmental and diver groups “What we can do is give coral reefs more time by trying to reduce the stresses we can control. We need to do this as quickly as possible.’’
These steps go from curtailing the human impact — creating sanctuary barriers, controlling sewage and pollution runoff into reefs, clumsy divers, errant anchors, fishing mishaps and more — to using propogation techniques to increase the populations and research more about these corals genetically. One goal is to try and make corals tougher to the environmental changes and influences.
“There are challenges to being sort of like a Johnny Appleseed, if you will,’’ Scott Donahue, the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park chief scientist, said. “It sort of boils down to this: If we do nothing, we will definitely fail.’’
Gene Shinn, a retired geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who pioneered studies of coral growth rates off South Florida, said he’s been impressed by the success of coral nurseries, but remains skeptical that resilience efforts can make much of a difference.
There are simply too many pieces of the puzzles missing, said Shinn, who began diving off South Florida as a teenaged spear fisherman and has chronicled the decline with an extraordinary series of photos dating to the late 1950s. One set shows a brain coral the size of Volkswagen in 1959, withering and all but dead by 1998.
Scientists and researchers may not agree on the exact causes of the declines of corals in these reefs but they can all agree the loss of reefs are devastating to the fragile marine ecosystem. As agencies take a closer look at what can be done, science is still scrambling for more concrete answers. We are hoping the strides we have taken as aquarists and the discoveries we’ve found in our systems can somehow translate to saving coral reefs.