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Local scientists help mitigate ‘unimaginable’ coral deaths

Mark Parker



Dead Elkhorn Coral at Sombrero Reef in the Florida Keys. The Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) explains that the brownish patches are tissue that died before it had a chance to "bleach." Photo: CRF.

Corals are living organisms critical to marine ecosystems and economies, and an “unprecedented” heat wave fueling increasingly warmer waters has decimated Florida’s reefs.

Local organizations are now gathering the endangered species to prevent extinction. University of South Florida St. Petersburg officials announced Monday that school scientists and researchers from the Florida Institute of Oceanography (FIO), housed on the campus, are storing thousands of corals at the organization’s Keys Marine Laboratory (KML).

The KML features one of the largest temperature-controlled seawater systems in the Florida Keys. According to the USF release, it now houses over 1,500 coral specimens harvested over the past week.

Scientists expect the abnormally high temperatures, and deaths, to continue. However, school officials say the facility can hold thousands more corals with 60 tanks ranging from 40 to 1,000 gallons.

“For years, we have been developing the infrastructure capacity to support reef restoration efforts that enable KML to temporarily house corals during emergencies such as this,” said director Cynthia Lewis in a prepared statement. “Typically, water temperatures this time of year are in the mid-80s, but we are already recording temperatures of 90 degrees.

“It is very alarming.”

Rescued coral living at the St. Petersburg-based Florida Institute of Oceanography’s Keys Marine Lab. Photo: USF.

Much farther north, in Clearwater, the water temperature hit 90 degrees in May, nearly a month earlier than in 2022. The Manatee Bay Buoy in the Upper Keys recorded a 101.1 water surface temperature at 6 p.m. Monday, which – pending no data anomalies – would set a new world record.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) states that corals grow optimally in waters between 73 and 84 degrees Fahrenheit. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) reports that the endangered organisms “are highly- sensitive to even small temperature changes,” and anything over 86 degrees “can be harmful.”

Thousands of tiny animals, called polyps, comprise corals. When water temperatures rise, they become stressed.

Corals then expel algae living in their tissue and turn white, a process called bleaching. NOAA states that bleaching events are not always fatal.

However, it does affect growth and reproduction and increases the likelihood of future bleaching and death. The Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) reported that Florida has “lost almost all the corals in Looe Key Nursery in the Lower Keys.”

The situation is even more dire in Sombrero Reef, a protected area in the middle Keys, near Marathon.

“On July 20, CRF teams visited Sombrero Reef, a restoration site we’ve been working at for over a decade,” said Phanor Montoy-Mayoa, CRF restoration program manager. “What we found was unimaginable – 100% coral mortality.”

Scientists at Tampa’s Florida Aquarium will breed some of the corals, once the animals are stabilized. Photo: USF.

The FIO is a 32-member consortium that supports the entire State University System and several local, state and federal agencies. Those include the FWC, CRF and Tampa’s Florida Aquarium.

According to USF, FIO’s marine lab on Long Key provides easy access for partner organizations to relocate surviving corals from reefs. They will stay at the facility for months, with some undergoing a breeding program.

Once the “historically” high temperatures decrease, USF scientists and restoration partners will return the corals to offshore nurseries. Eventually, conservationists will reattach them to natural reefs using “epoxy, zip ties and nails.”

“We are very fortunate that aquarium systems like those at Keys Marine Laboratory are available and can be reliably used to stabilize and hold corals in emergency situations,” said Keri O’Neil, director of the Florida Aquarium’s Coral Conservation Program. “Some of the corals held here today will become part of our coral breeding program at the Florida Aquarium and will be given world-class human care for the rest of their lives …”

The Aquarium’s corals will also produce hundreds of offspring annually. O’Neil and her colleagues will eventually bring those to the KML before releasing them into their natural habitat.

NOAA recently raised its coral bleaching warning system to an “Alert Level 2” for the Keys, the highest of its five classifications. That means average water temperatures have remained 1.8 degrees above normal for eight consecutive weeks.

Florida’s Coral Reef spans more than 350 miles from the Dry Tortugas, at the southern tip of the Keys, to Martin County, about 100 miles north of Miami. That is roughly the distance from Miami to Jacksonville.

It is the only living barrier reef in the continental U.S., and the FWC notes that the “natural wonder” protects coastlines during storms. It also supports over 71,000 jobs and generates a $6.3 billion economic impact.

“This is not a partisan issue – everyone will be affected,” said DR. R. Scott Winters, CEO of the CRF. “This crisis must serve as a wakeup call, emphasizing the need for globally concerted efforts to combat climate change.”

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