Stepping Up To Preserve The “Secret” Coral Reefs In The Florida Keys

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Fluorescent blue. Chlorophyll green. Bright magenta. Shiny orange. Vivid mauve. Coral reefs derive their unique coloring from organisms living within their structure. The zooxanthellae and the reefs have a symbiotic relationship — the former uses photosynthesis to survive, which aids the reefs in nutrient production, and the latter provides the organisms with a safe structure to inhabit and the carbon dioxide needed for photosynthesis. Yet this tenuous relationship is crucially at risk within the “secret” coral reefs in the Florida Keys.

Over the last 40 years, coral reefs in the Florida Keys have suffered dramatic declines. Nearly 90% of the live corals that once dominated the reefs have been lost. Emergency action is required to change the trajectory of the health of coral reefs in Florida — and your comments can make the difference in saving these precious ecosystems.

"Secret" Coral Reefs
Image retrieved from NOAA

Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary: “Secret” Coral Reefs

“As an explorer, I know firsthand there are many places in the ocean so full of life that they should be protected. Coral reefs and mangrove coastlines are stressed already by climate change and ocean acidification, and poor planning will just make their plight worse.”

– Philippe Cousteau, Jr., US explorer and environmental advocate

Building on more than 3 decades of scientific exploration and public calls for additional protections, NOAA announced this month a proposal to expand Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary to secure additional important Gulf of Mexico habitat. If passed, 14 additional reefs and banks would be added to a sanctuary that provides essential territory for recreationally and commercially important fish. The area also offers habitat for threatened or endangered species including sea turtles, corals, and manta rays and would expand from 56 square miles to 160 square miles.

Retired Navy rear admiral Tim Gallaudet, assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and deputy NOAA administrator, argues that “expanding the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary will significantly contribute to the conservation of America’s coral reefs, while supporting STEM education, outdoor tourism, and recreation in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Discovered at the turn of the 20th century by fishers in search of snapper and grouper, these colorful “secret” coral reefs are the northernmost in the continental US.

The plan would also extend existing sanctuary protections to provide for more comprehensive management and protection of sensitive underwater features and marine habitats associated with continental shelf-edge reefs and banks in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico. The initiative is part of an unprecedented, decades-long effort to revitalize the region’s highly diverse and economically valuable marine ecosystem.

Restoring 7 Iconic Florida Keys’ Reefs

“It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment.”

– Ansel Adams, photographer (20 Feb 1902-1984)

Coral cover is a measure of the proportion of reef surface covered by live stony coral rather than sponges, algae, or other organisms that make up the reef system. In general, 25% coral cover is considered necessary to support a healthy ecosystem and protect reef structure. Since the 1970s, many events have reduced coral coverage in the Florida Keys to just 2% — pollution, heat-induced coral bleaching, cold snaps, and hurricanes. Compare this tiny percentage to historical coverage of 25 to 40%.

Over the past 15 years, pioneering restoration efforts involving growing and transplanting corals have proven successful in the Florida Keys, setting the proverbial stage for another large-scale restoration effort at 7 reefs within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary: Carysfort Reef, Horseshoe Reef, Cheeca Rocks, Sombrero Reef, Newfound Harbor, Looe Key Reef, and Eastern Dry Rocks. These sites represent a diversity of habitats, support a variety of human uses, span the full geographic range of the Florida Keys, and show a high probability of success.

In February 2020, the United Arab Emirates announced a $3.5 million gift to The United Way of Collier and the Keys in Florida to support the coral restoration efforts of Mission: Iconic Reefs. The donation is part of a larger $10 million pledge to the state of Florida for Hurricane Irma relief and recovery efforts.

Restoration is set to begin immediately, using a phased approach:

  • Site preparation: Remove nuisance and invasive species, like algae, that compete with corals for space and prevent coral larvae from settling and growing.
  • Phase 1: Use rapidly-growing coral species to restore the reefs to an average of 15% coral cover across the seven sites. Coral cover is a measure of how much of the reef surface is covered by live coral rather than sponges, algae, or other organisms. In general, 25% coral cover is considered necessary to support a healthy ecosystem and protect reef structure.
  • Phase 1A: Restore elkhorn coral, a fast-growing species that has not been susceptible to stony coral tissue loss disease. Creating this habitat will increase populations of other species living on the reef and support future phases of planting.
  • Phase 1B: Improve diversity of the reef by restoring star, brain, pillar, and staghorn corals. Reefs will also be supplemented with species that eat algae that can overgrow coral reefs, such as long-spined sea urchins and Caribbean king crab.
  • Phase 2: Continue planting elkhorn, star, brain, pillar, and staghorn corals, in addition to the other small, slower-growing stony corals such as finger and blade coral. This will add diversity to the reefs. By the end of this phase, coral cover will be restored to an average of 25% across the 7 sites.
  • During all phases: We will conduct routine monitoring and nurturing of each site. This will include removing marine debris, coral predators, and species that might compete for space. They will also reattach any corals that may have been damaged or disconnected.

Final Thoughts

When corals are stressed by changes in conditions such as temperature, light, or nutrients, they expel the symbiotic algae living in their tissues, causing them to turn completely white. When a coral bleaches, it is not necessarily dead. Corals can survive a bleaching event, but they are under more stress and are subject to mortality. Coral bleaching is of particular concern today as our climate changes and temperatures rise.

NOAA has provided consistent support to the National Marine Sanctuary System, as evidenced by the November, 2019 designation of the new sanctuary in Mallows Bay on the Potomac River in Maryland. Such efforts are essential to save the limited number of healthy coral reefs in the US and world.

You can help, too, by supporting legislation and funding to protect and restore “secret” coral reefs. Click through to this press release to obtain the dates and links to register.

If you have any hesitations, check out this video about reef life mortality.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack:

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