South Florida Coral Reefs get a glimmer of hope

Florida Coral Reef

A worldwide epidemic of coral bleaching, which transformed vivid South Florida coral structures into lifeless skeletons, appears to be ending.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that satellite data and modeling indicated that an unprecedented three-year period of coral bleaching has stopped, after causing extensive damage to the world’s coral reefs.

Coral bleaching, the process in which corals eject the tiny bits of algae that provide them with nutrition and that create the striking streaks of red, green and orange that characterize these flamboyantly-colored undersea environments. Bleaching weakens corals, making them vulnerable to disease.

Scientists in South Florida, witnessed the death of a car-sized, 300-year-old coral off the coast of Hollywood.

The bleaching appears to have killed off about 95 percent of a tall, cucumber-shaped species called pillar coral, weakening them sufficiently for disease to finish them off, said Mark Eakin, NOAA Coral Reef Watch coordinator.

“We’ve had an almost complete loss of pillar coral,” he said. “They’re an absolutely gorgeous growth. It almost looks like the ruins of an old Greek building.”

Coral reefs aren’t just the earth’s most spectacular color show. They provide homes for a wide range of fish, crabs, sponges and other marine creatures.

South Florida has the only coral reefs in the continental United States, they are a major tourist attraction, supporting jobs in fishing, diving and snorkeling.

NOAA blames global warming and El Niño — the periodic warming of the Pacific Ocean off South America — for the bleaching that began in 2014. It brought unprecedented attention to the plight of the world’s reefs, inspiring Outside magazine to publish an “obituary” for Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Better news for coral reefs everywhere is that satellites show that corals are getting some relief from the consistently high ocean temperatures that caused bleaching.

Brian Walker, research scientist at Nova Southeastern University, said the diseases harming South Florida’s corals have not subsided.

“Presumably a cooler summer might help the corals fight off the disease better, but it has been lethal so far even into the cooler months,” he said.

There was some good news, he said. Rare staghorn corals, which established surprising dense patches off Fort Lauderdale in recent years, have been unaffected by the bleaching, he said.

The prospects for the future are uncertain. NOAA says another bleaching event may start this summer for U.S. reefs.

“Despite what appears to be the end of the third global event, some U.S. coral reefs are still not completely in the clear,” NOAA said. “NOAA’s four-month coral bleaching outlook shows some risk to coral reefs in Hawaii, Florida and the Caribbean later this summer.”

Compounding the problem for South Florida’s reefs, which stretch from the Florida Keys through Martin County, are the variety of stresses that come from living next a vast urban area, with coastal construction, dredging and the runoff of fertilizers and pesticides into the ocean.

“There are two things we need to be doing,” Eakin said. “We need to get climate change under control and we need to address the local stressors, and neither is going to be sufficient without the other.”

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