Florida’s sparkling blue waters are home to a bright and colorful underwater world.
A coral reef stretching hundreds of miles down the southeast coast provides shelter to over a quarter of Florida’s marine life, not to mention valuable erosion prevention for the delicate shoreline ecosystems.
You already know about Florida’s coral reef and what exactly these little creatures do for the ocean, so here’s a less fun fact — they’re disappearing, and they’re going quickly.
Luckily, though, there are plenty of efforts underway to understand the source of the coral’s destruction and even more work to rebuild the reefs to their former glory. And, with a little bit of awareness added to our daily lives, we can help restore Florida’s delicate and diverse coral reef environments!
Rebuilding Florida's Coral Reefs
Florida’s coral reefs
Florida is the only state in the continental United States with an extensive coral reef system close to its shoreline — and by extensive, we really mean extensive!
The Florida Reef, as it’s called, runs for over 350 miles along the east coast from the St. Lucie Inlet in Martin County down to the tip of the Florida Keys and beyond, ending at the Dry Tortugas National Park in the Gulf of Mexico. It would take you a good five hours just to drive down the coast, plus a 70-mile ferry ride to get to the terminus at Dry Tortugas, to travel the full length of the reef from start to finish.
In fact, it’s one of the largest coral reefs in the world, ranking among the likes of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the New Caledonia Barrier Reef in the South Pacific and the Red Sea Coral Reef in Egypt! Pretty cool, huh?
Florida’s coral reefs are defined by three major kinds of corals: branching corals, star corals and brain corals. Branching corals grow in segmented, branch-like structures that connect with surrounding corals to form a cage-like environment over the ocean floor. Star corals are more dome-shaped than star-shaped, but their tentacles close in tiny star-shaped patterns over the colorful round skeletons. Brain corals look, well, a lot like brains.
All these corals provide safe havens for a host of marine wildlife. The protective ecosystem in a coral reef offers spawning grounds for breeding, protection for fish raising their young, hunting grounds for predators and much, much more. Just watch “Finding Nemo” — it’s practically a documentary.
Florida’s coral reefs also protect the shorelines from erosion! In fact, shoreline coral reefs dissipate up to 97% of wave energy heading toward land which, in turn, lowers the chance of flooding and other weather-related destruction for us humans living on shore.
All that to say that the Florida Reef is an incredibly important part of the state’s marine and shore life. It’s so important that the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (F.K.N.M.S.) was formed in 1990 to protect the nearly 3,800 square miles of water surrounding the reef and the Florida Keys, ensuring that the 6,000 species of marine creatures, the many islands, the brackish forests and other pieces of the ecosystem are protected.
Decline of the reefs
Unfortunately, as with many areas of natural beauty, Florida’s coral reefs have been put under heavy strain over the past few decades. Corals are creatures that rely on a symbiotic relationship with algae in order to eat and grow, and these creatures are extremely sensitive to the surrounding water quality, water temperature and other environmental factors.
The effects of climate change have brought warmer waters and higher sea levels over the years, both of which are destructive to coral.
Higher temperatures have caused the symbiotic algae to die off, leaving the coral skeletons bare and bone-white — a process known as coral bleaching. Without the algae, the coral can’t convert the sunlight into nutrients, and eventually the coral dies, too.
Higher sea levels means the buildup of sedimentation in areas that used to be much shallower. When the corals are covered in sand, silt or debris, they can’t eat and can’t receive sunlight, thus burying them alive.
There are also changes in ocean currents that can affect the temperatures and food chains in sensitive areas. An increase in carbon dioxide (ocean acidification) reduces pH levels in the water and physically changes the chemical environment in which the corals live. Even changes in precipitation, storm patterns and wind can affect these coral clusters under the sea.
Human activity on land has significantly affected the coral reefs on Florida’s coastline. Pollution runoff, coastal development, plastic litter and toxins from sunscreen all contribute to the chemical destruction to sensitive coral reefs who rely on clean, clear water to survive.
On top of that, there are all the physically destructive actions that affect the corals. Boats dropping anchor carelessly, divers and snorkelers exploiting the scenery and collecting and selling corals all destroy decades’ worth of coral growth in seconds.
Yes, even oceans can have disease outbreaks, and Florida’s reefs have been heavily impacted by the most recent wave of coral disease.
An outbreak of stony coral tissue loss disease (S.C.T.L.D.) was first reported just off the coast of Miami in 2014, and it has since spread through the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean as far as Jamaica, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Mexico.
This disease targets and breaks down the corals’ soft, living tissue, without which the coral colonies die. Some corals take months to completely die, while some can die within a few weeks — it largely depends on the species.
Researchers estimate that around 50% of the species of stony coral in Florida are susceptible to the disease, including all the endangered stony coral species.
The outlook isn’t great, considering all the threats on Florida’s coral reefs. With disease, climate change and human impact all contributing to the destruction, over 70% of the reef has shown serious decline in the last 30 years.
Rebuilding the reefs
Don’t lose hope, though! Major organizations have been working hard on responding to the crisis, including the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (N.O.A.A.) and the National Park Service.
Alongside efforts to understand the destruction and finding solutions to slow it down are efforts to rebuild the coral reef back to its former glory.
The Coral Restoration Foundation has been growing branch coral in underwater nurseries since 2007, and has since replanted over 120,000 corals back into the Florida Coral Reef! Through a process of propagation, careful study and intentional replanting, scientists are able to take fragments of existing coral and grow them in controlled underwater environments until they are large and strong enough to form new colonies atop old reefs.
Right now, there are 11 different species of corals being grown in these coral nurseries, including the branching corals and star corals that once covered the reef at its height of health. And, in addition to growing corals, the Coral Restoration Foundation also offers plenty of avenues for volunteering, dive programs and citizen science opportunities to anyone interested in the project and the mission.
What can we do?
If you live in or near our South Florida apartments and are interested in learning more about Florida’s coral reefs, then you’re in luck! There are plenty of opportunities to get involved with coral restoration and coral conservation programs all over southeast Florida, whether you want to dive, educate, clean up or raise awareness.
Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/baechi