Top Ten Threats to Corals of Biscayne and Dry Tortugas National Parks - South Dade News Leader: Community News | South Dade News Leader | Miami Dade County

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Top Ten Threats to Corals of Biscayne and Dry Tortugas National Parks

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Posted: Tuesday, March 1, 2016 10:40 am | Updated: 5:35 pm, Fri Mar 4, 2016.

Approximately 250 miles long and averaging 4 miles wide, the Florida Reef Tract comprises the third largest barrier reef system in the world. The waters surrounding Dry Tortugas National Park (Dry Tortugas) and Biscayne National Park (Biscayne)are part of this system. There are 45 different coral species and 37 octocoral species (water-based organisms formed of colonial polyps with 8-fold symmetry, including blue coral, soft corals, sea pens, and gorgonian such as sea fans and sea whips), that can be found in the Florida Reef Tract and these two national parks.

Although there has been a great deal of research on the corals of the Florida Reef Tract, scientists have just scratched the surface in their understanding of all that may be required for successful conservation of this underwater ecosystem on a broad scale. There are ten threats to coral conservation that have been identified through research and are outlined in this article, though there may be more yet to be discovered.

Global Warming. This atmospheric change is causing warming and acidification of the oceans. Ocean acidity occurs as oceans absorb the increasing amounts of carbon dioxide (a major greenhouse gas) from the atmosphere. The small animals, known as polyps, that live inside corals cannot survive this changing environment and only white calcium carbonate deposits that appear as white blotches on the corals remain. The overall effect of this phenomenon is called coral bleaching.

Overfishing. Many of the fish that make their homes in and around corals eat algae that grow on the reefs. If too many of these fish are removed the algae overgrows and impedes coral growth. Reduction or removal of predatory fish from reef areas, such as snapper and grouper species, contribute to negative impacts of the reefs ecologic balance and result in an unhealthy reef system. Another part of this threat are illegal pollutants, such as cyanide and Clorox, used to flush out fish for harvest in some areas of the Florida Reef Tract and Caribbean.

Physical Damage. Corals are beautiful and interesting to divers and snorkelers when viewed underwater and often not easily visible to boats in the complex marine environment of south Florida. Consequently, damage to corals from human interactions occurs in many forms including curious snorkelers or divers, vessels grounding, or improperly deployed anchors. Coral reefs may look sturdy, but the truth is they are quite fragile and once damaged it can take years for a reef to repair itself. In this Caribbean climate, coral grows at the rather slow pace of up to one-half to two inches a year.

Pollution. Sources of pollution that impact the health of corals include plastics and other solid waste dumped at sea, derelict fishing gear such as lobster traps, trap line and monofilament left behind, carelessly spilled gasoline, oil or sewage from vessels, and runoff from the mainland. Pollution can cause a myriad of problems for a reef including physical damage to the reef structure, injury and death to reef-dwelling organisms, overgrowth of algae, elevated bacteria levels, and toxicity. Marine pollution has become so severe that some scientists estimate that by 2050 the ocean will hold more plastic garbage than fish.

Invasive Exotic Lionfish.The Indo-Pacific Lionfish has invaded Atlantic waters since the 1980’s. Lionfish prey voraciouslyon a wide variety of reef inhabitants such as parrot fish, surgeon fish, and crustaceans that feed on reef algae. As mentioned before, left to grow unhindered, algae can smother corals to the point they won’t survive. There are few, if any, native species that prey on lionfish.

Disease. Microbes have caused a dramatic decline of corals along the Florida Reef Tract and Caribbean. Largely because of the mortality from disease, Elkhorn and Staghorn species are under protection of the federal Endangered Species Act. Pillar coral is another species affected by disease. Researchers have identified at least four diseases affecting the reef tract including white plague, white pox, black band, and yellow band. Corals become more susceptible to infections by these diseases when weakened by other threats outlined in this article.

Severe Weather Event. The relatively shallow waters of Biscayne and off shore reefs of the Dry Tortugas may be vulnerable to the stronger and more frequent tropical storms predicted to occur in the Caribbean due to climate change. Strong storms can cause structural damage and long periods of sand and algae turbidity can suffocate corals. Ironically, these storms may also provide some benefits to reef systems by removing algae and cooling the oceans as they stir currents and drop heavy rains.

Coastal Development. Another human generated threat to corals is the pressures associated with development along coastlines. We humans love to spend time at the shore and recreating in our oceans. Coastal communities are in high demand and growing globally. Increased coastal development comes with an increased human footprint on the land and water bringing associated impacts through reduction of habitat, increased waste streams, and other changes to the natural system that traditionally accompany development and increased populations. The increase in seasonal and year round visitors to South Florida brings more boating, fishing, and a myriad of outdoor recreation that have the potential to impact Biscayne and Dry Tortugas corals if we are not vigilant in education and conservation programs.

Illegal Collection. The illegal collection of coral and other coral reef animals is also a potential problem. The exotic tropical flower-like beauty of corals has made them vulnerable to those wanting to take home a piece of their underwater experience by collecting stony corals, fire corals, or octocorals, commonly known as sea-fans. Agencies charged with protecting this resource are constantly reinforcing the message of “take only pictures” as collection of these species is prohibited throughout the state of Florida, which is the only state other than Hawaii that has coral reefs. Fortunately, visitor education, cooperation, and enforcement of park regulations have drastically reduced this threat.

Time. Finally, this will be the test that determines what the future holds and how resilient this fragile resource will be, faced with all of these natural and not so natural threats to the corals in Biscayne and Dry Tortugas.

The National Park Service and partner organizations such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the South Florida Caribbean Inventory and Monitoring Network, and universities continue critical research, efforts to educate the public, and to implement restoration and conservation measures to improve the potential for the corals of south Florida to recover and be here for future generations to enjoy.Visitors and residents of south Florida also play a role inthe efforts to protectcoral reefs by not touching corals, boating safely, avoiding shallow areas, and never anchoring on coral reefs or throwing trash overboard.

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