From red to white: Florida’s sun-loving coral reefs losing color
The nickname “The Sunshine State” is no understatement for Florida. The southeastern state is commonly renowned for its sunshine and clear coastal waters. While these are the characteristics tourists and visitors love, they also combine to create the perfect habitat for an additional exciting feature of Florida’s natural landscape: coral reefs.
Florida is home to the third-largest coral reef in the world, housing 1,400 species of plants and animals and 500 species of fish. But the reality is not nearly as impressive as it sounds.
Nearly half of the reef system in Florida has been disappearing, according to an article in The Guardian. What has caused the death of hundreds of miles of reefs?
According to News Deeply, coral reefs typically die for two reasons: they either bleach or they lose tissue. Along the coastline of Florida, reefs are not only experiencing coral bleaching, a natural reaction caused by rising sea temperatures, but also are being attacked by a ruthless and dangerous disease called Stony Coral Tissue-Loss Disease.
The disease was unidentifiable for years, and scientists hoped that it would just go away. Unfortunately, the disease is still waging war on Florida’s coral reefs. After the winter months of these first few years, marine scientists began to notice that the disease was wiping out coral along the eastern coast. Coral tissue began to change color and die, leaving behind a bare white skeleton. The end result is similar to that of a bleaching event.
Weesam Khory of the Florida Department of Protection explained the disease.
"The documented outbreak of coral disease near Key Biscayne started in 2014, and we have seen it impact the Florida reef tract from Martin to Monroe Counties,” Khory said. “Since the outbreak began, the Department of Environmental Protection has been at the forefront of Florida's unified coral reef disease response efforts and continues to be committed to the protection of these vital habitats.”
Florida is known for its tourism. Without coral reefs, tourism will decline along with the number of fish inhabiting Florida’s shores, according to Dalton Hesley, a senior research associate at the University of Miami.
Khory also said that the state government has now granted $3 million to reef restoration, research and development.
Hesley also provided insight as to what the bleaching problem is and why it has only gotten worse.
He said that a coral bleaching event occurs when the atmosphere temperature is raised for prolonged periods of time. This typically occurs in the late months of summer. Coral has evolved to thrive in very specific regions, usually areas with low nutrients and high light intensity around the equator.
“There are thresholds. I call them the ‘divas of the sea’ because they like certain water depths, certain nutrient levels, certain water flow, certain temperatures,” Hesley said. “It’s kinda like Goldilocks, where it can’t be too cold and it can’t be too hot.”
A coral bleaching event is what occurs when that threshold is breached.
“There is this algae living in the corals’ tissue necessary for survival, and when stressed, the coral kicks out that ‘roommate’ that they use for nutrients, thus leaving them vulnerable,” Hesley said. “They actually eat themselves for a certain amount of time until they die unless the temperature regains homeostasis.”
The problem is that the temperatures have not been regaining homeostasis regularly.
This is more than a local issue. It is a global issue. Australia just experienced this bleaching to the point of scientists predicting the permanent death of the reef and writing its obituary.
“Though not true, it’s a siren being sounded that even the pristine Great Barrier Reef is experiencing these bleaching events,” Hesley said. “So that’s when people really realized that this is a humanity crisis, not just a local crisis for reliant communities.”
Alongside these threats, there are two additional drivers that put reefs at risk: the global issue emissions in our atmosphere and ocean that cause an increase in ocean temperature, and local stressors, according to Hesley.
Hesley explained that the local stressors in Florida are factors such as overfishing and pollution. In Miami and Broward counties, there is a discharge of 188 million gallons a day of treated sewage out to sea from outfall pipes, according to the Sun Sentinel. This discharge causes the coral to be more susceptible to bleaching and disease.
Snorkeling and swimming in these clear blue waters in the Keys of Florida wouldn’t be the same without looking down and seeing the multicolored reefs system. Hesley said that the solution can begin at home with cutting down on waste like single-use plastics and CO2 emissions. Or get involved in government to make sure that politicians pay attention to environmental issues. But most importantly, people should stay educated.
“The better we understand those ecosystems and the immense number of resources we get from them, the better we will be moving forward,” Hesley said.
By Jessica Lykins and Michaela Payne