There’s no doubt that climate change is real. We’re seeing ice caps melting and polar bears starving, birds are washing up covered in oil—a complete devastation of marine life. Once beautiful and flourishing reefs are losing their color, and, more importantly, their lives in a global calamity called coral bleaching, impacting almost every coastal community in the world, including South Florida.
Oceans have warmed and become more acidic, with surface temperature rising 0.302 degrees Fahrenheit since 1969, and pH falling by approximately 0.11 units, becoming 30% more acidic than it was in 1751. This temperature change may not sound alarming; it’s only a fraction of a degree. There are so many other major effects of climate change that seem more urgent, such as the plight of the adorable polar bears and other arctic life that are rapidly losing their habitat. So why does this minor change in temperature matter? Well, marine life, especially corals, are incredibly sensitive to any change in temperature. Research shows when water temperatures remain higher than average for a prolonged period of time, corals experience metabolic stress and lose their zooxanthellae, a single-celled photosynthetic dinoflagellate that provides up to 90 percent of their host’s energy. Since zooxanthellae are photosynthetic organisms, they provide the yellowish and brownish colors typical in corals. Without the presence of these quintessential organisms, corals turn white, or become “bleached.” What happens when coral becomes bleached? According to Stephanie Wear, the director of coral reef conservation at The Nature Conservancy, “If these algae aren’t reabsorbed in the near term, the coral will die. They just can’t survive long-term without them.” And when coral dies, reefs die, and without reefs the marine life that they sustain go too, catalyzing a chain of death with massive, inconceivable consequences.
Even though these coral reefs make up less than 1% of the ocean ecosystem, their loss would be disastrous. Coral reefs are prevalent in typically warm waters close to the equator, and mostly cling to the shoreline, one of its most valuable qualities because it protects our shores from coastal erosion. Furthermore, reefs absorb waves that would break directly on shore, helping protect coasts from the full brunt of tsunamis and tropical storms, and shielding important ecosystems like mangroves and marshes that provide for water purification and food. Reefs also shelter about 25 percent of marine species, providing a valuable home for organisms that are vital to human industries such as fishing and tourism, which are especially important in South Florida.
The Florida Barrier Reef is the third largest reef in the world, and the only living one in the continental United States. It stretches 170 miles, from Biscayne National Park to the Dry Tortugas, and it consists of three different types of reef communities. It also encompasses many famous reefs, such as Alligator Reef, Cheeca Rocks, Molasses Reef, and John Pennekamp State Park: all places in my backyard growing up.
I’m a born and raised South Floridian, as are both of my parents. I grew up on the water, in the Keys, and I’ve been snorkeling and diving on the same five by ten mile section of the Florida Reef since my mother was pregnant with me. I can’t imagine a better environment to grow up in. My summers were filled with sun and salt, chasing brightly colored fish, and trying and failing to catch a lobster with my bare hands. I have vivid memories of flourishing reefs covered in fish and rainbow corals, bright and alive. But within the past ten years, it’s been painfully obvious that corals are losing their vibrant, essential color.
Of course there are still plenty of reef communities that are alive and relatively prosperous, but they seem to be few and far between. When I go on the water now, I see bleached coral covered with sand replacing my once thriving and beloved reef. Of course, bleaching is a cyclical process, but the accelerated rate and intensity of these changes is not natural. Staghorn corals, one of the three most important Caribbean corals that build reefs and habitats, are dying at an unprecedented rate. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, “After surviving for millennia against their natural enemies, the most important reef-building corals of Florida—staghorn and elkhorn corals—are now at such great risk that they were designated as threatened species in 2006.” I’ve seen reefs that were once covered in bright orange staghorn corals become brittle and white as a bone with their death. Major changes like this threaten the health and well-being of marine life as a whole.
Staghorn coral numbers are down 96% at Molasses Reef in the Upper Keys and 98% at Looe Key in the Lower Keys. Eric Billips, the owner of Islamorada Dive Center, has seen these dramatic changes firsthand. He says, “I will see extreme bleaching towards the end of the summer, especially at certain sites with staghorn corals and shallower patch reefs,” as bleaching is directly linked to higher temperatures, which occurs more during the summer in shallower waters. He’s been diving on the Florida Reef four times a day for the past ten years, and says in that time he’s “seen dramatic changes…it’s unbelievable the amount of bleaching.” We’ve all seen these drastic changes in the health of the reefs that protect us and provide so much life and food.
And it is unbelievable. The Florida Reef is paramount to South Florida, both environmentally and economically. Not only does the reef protect us environmentally, but coral reef recreation is a major contributor to our economy. According to a Hazen & Sawyer study, coral reef recreation accounted for 70,000 jobs and $5.5 billion in annual sales in 2008 in Dade, Broward, Monroe, Martin, and Palm Beach counties. Continued destruction of reefs could elevate unemployment rates and weaken our coastal communities. An exponential increase in the amount of tourists is not helping either; divers and snorkelers of all skill levels touch and disturb sensitive corals, leaving dangerous oils in the water. Human pollution is also strangling and poisoning corals, as well as killing off other marine organisms such as turtles and manatees.
But hope is not lost. There are numerous programs aimed at restoring reefs, such as Rescue a Reef and the Coral Restoration Foundation. Studies have shown that many tourists would be willing to pay more if the extra money went to protecting the reefs. Along with this, as Eric Billips stressed, divers have to make a “conscious effort,” and dive shops should guide their customers on the reef to ensure minimal coral disturbance. While no one person can fix the rising temperatures that are causing coral bleaching, we as a society can lobby for regulations, and try to do everything possible to save the Florida Reef and protect the marine beauty of South Florida.