Thursday, October 21, 2021

Florida Coral Reefs in Serious Decline

Help is Hopefully on the Way

Photos by Jory Westberry | All slides are used with permission from Roxanne Boonstra.

I used to do more diving and snorkeling than I do now. Why? I was increasingly disappointed when diving the local reefs, clear down through the Keys. The beautiful corals I remembered were mostly semi-bleached, the colors faded, and the variety of fish was less as were the numbers of fish. Fishing guides that I know are concerned about the lack of fish and the deep-sea fishermen/fisherwomen have to go farther offshore to score the fish they seek.  

So, what’s happened to the oncethriving reefs where beauty abounded and so many beautiful sea creatures called it home? I attended the most interesting presentation recently at the Marco Island Historical Society’s Rose Auditorium on the coral reefs to find answers to my concerns and to further my knowledge. 

Rosanne Boonstrathe speaker from the Coral Restoration Foundation, was a wealth of knowledge, experience and hope for the future, which drew a deep sigh of relief from me. I came away with new respect for the research being conducted, the dedication and commitment of the members and volunteers at the Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) in Key Largo. They know what they’re doing! 

New term – out planted.

Here’s the process in a nutshell.  

  1. Identify the reefs that are deteriorating and why. 
  2. Determine methods to reinstate healthy, thriving reefs so that fish have habitat on which to live and flourish. 
  3. Put the ongoing research into practice and keep extensive observations to determine whether the methods are successful. 
  4. Increase the number of volunteers devoted to this rehabilitation and publicize the success. 
  5. Write additional grants to further spread the methods to other concerned caretakers of the dying reefs in this country and the Caribbean, and raise awareness with as many audiences that you can reach. 

Rosanne Boonstra has been diving for years and is extremely knowledgeable about sea life and the ecological structures that support it. She brought tons of very informative slides regarding the mission and progress of the CRF. I would suggest her as a speaker for any of your organizations because this topic is relevant for all residents of Florida and beyond. Since the only coral reefs in the United States reside off the Keys, seven reefs, from the Carysfort Reef to the Eastern Dry Rocks have been identified as very critical reefs to be restored. 

How did the reefs decline? Besides the destruction that happens during our hurricanes, there are human impacts (dumping sewage into the water, anchor damage, pilfering corals for home aquariums, and damage from divers, to name a few), warming temperatures and bleaching. Bleaching is caused by corals subjected to changing conditions such as an influx of nutrients (see the star above plus fertilizers), rising water temperatures, or sometimes lower than normal temperatureslight and ocean acidification. When the temperature of the water rises, not only infectious diseases increase on the reefs, but coral bleaching increases. 

Thanks to the scientists and dedicated staff and volunteers, they are making positive progress.

In other parts of the world, like Saudi Arabia, the scarcity of freshwater has necessitated the construction of desalination plants along the coastline. Unfortunately, these have had a detrimental on the reefs due to the discharge of brine (concentrated salts) released back into the local waters. The brine material eventually sinks to the reefs, corrupts the ecosystem by decreasing the oxygen levels while increasing the salinity, ultimately causing destruction to the reefs. The good news is that because the technology is improving, the ejection of salt is decreasing. As desalination plants are considered in the United States, we can learn from the mistakes of others. 

More good news is that aquariums around our state have joined in the effort and land-based nurseries are helping to grow the Staghorn corals for replanting. The best and closest place to not only see the process, but to help is the CRF Nursery in Key Largo. Not only do they welcome volunteers, but they also educate, train and supervise the “planting” of the baby Staghorn pieces. 

It works like this: 

  1. Pieces of healthy Staghorn are harvested and divided into smaller pieces. 
  2. Clean fiberglass “trees” (more like old, bare TV antennas) are “planted” to receive the transplanted small pieces of coral, which are attached to the “trees.” 
  3. After they grow to an optimal size, they are transplanted to a reef and adhered with Marine epoxy. There is a formula as to how many and what the density is for the transplantsall very scientific. 
  4. The reefs are monitored for the growth of the transplants and the return of fish, who left when there was no food or shelter and left the reefs more barren and bleached. 
  5. Thanks to a partnership and grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF), Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Mote Marine Lab, the progress will continue to restore underwater ecosystems to their optimal 25%, 15% is average, but the identified reefs are far below the average. 

Roxanne Boonstra from the Coral Restoration Foundation explains the threats to the Florida reefs at the recent Marco Island Historical Society’s lecture event.

There’s even more promising news. Off the coast in Collier County, the county’s Coastal Zone Management Department with many partner agencies, including fishing guides, are involved in monthslong processes, permitting from 6-9 months, stringent requirements and scrutiny of allowable materials for new, artificial reefs. The use of heavy concrete, stable rock, heavygauge steel and durable and non-polluting materialslike clean steel boat hulls to just name a feware used to enable the construction of new reefs in strategic areas off the coast in Collier County. These carefully selected sites and materials will enable the coral structures to grow and bring the fish to those areas, thus strengthening the underwater climate and the joy of fishing. 

The important point is that there are active and knowledgeable scientists and volunteers out there with a lot more expertise than I have who are in tune with the issues and how they affect us AND are working toward solutions. We should listen to them, give them our support and continue our own education on these subjects. 

  • Artificial reefs being installed – how many in Collier? 
  • Research. 
  • Growing corals and transplanting them to areas where the reefs have died. 

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