July 8, 2008

South Florida Reefs May Have Been Damaged By Storms and Pollution

By Robert Nolin & Rafael A. Olmeda, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Jul. 7--When it comes to the health of South Florida's coral reefs, the prognosis is not as gloomy as it could be. But it's not that sunny, either.

Coral reefs stretching from the Keys to Martin County haven't deteriorated over the past five years, government scientists say. But that may be because damage inflicted over decades by storms, pollution, sewage and warmer temperatures has already been done.

"Coral generally has been hanging in there," said Ken Banks, natural resources specialist with the Broward County Environmental Protection and Growth Management Department. "I'm optimistic about some things and pessimistic about others."

The status of the reefs was outlined in a survey released Monday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The 569-page NOAA report, distributed at the International Coral Reef Symposium being held this week at the Broward County Convention Center in Fort Lauderdale, is the first reef analysis since 2005.

South Florida's reefs, like half of those under U.S. jurisdiction, are rated fair or poor. The other half are listed as excellent or good.

Off South Florida, the reefs' coral cover is rated fair, for example, while water quality is rated poor. The prevalence of coral disease is low, however, the survey said.

Threats to the reefs, which extend less than two miles offshore, include recreational fishing and damage from vessel groundings off Port Everglades. Low-grade threats are coral bleaching and climate change.

"We still have algae blooms that impact the reef in a bad way," Banks said. "The coral is dying off but we don't have a lot of coral here anyway."

Chantal Collier, coral reef program manager for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, led the team that analyzed the reefs that stretch more than 100 miles along the South Florida coast. Development along that high-growth area, as well as beach renourishment and dredging, have altered sediment patterns that affect the health of the reefs.

"Coastal development is increasingly rapid," said Collier, who expressed hope that the survey would help get out the message that reef protection is important.

Gov. Charlie Crist, attending the opening day of the conference, echoed that message.

"Our reefs are one of our greatest natural resources," he said. "As a Floridian, I understand the fact that our economy is inextricably linked to our environment. Making sure we protect our environment only helps our economy."

According to the study, reef-based tourism accounts for $2.3 billion in revenue in South Florida. But overfishing threatens reefs by damaging habitat or upsetting the ecological balance between fish and reef.

"Evidence is warning us that many of our coral reef ecosystems are imperiled, and we as a community must act now," said Kacky Andrews, director of NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Program.

Besides overfishing, factors that lead to reef decline are pollution, warmer seawater temperatures and untreated sewage.

Crist aimed to eliminate the last threat by signing into law Monday a bill that would ban all ocean-sewage dumping by 2025. The law also prohibits the construction of new outfall pipes or expansion of existing ones.

Recent damage to South Florida's reef system could have been worse, said Jenny Waddell, the study's lead editor. For example, reef injury from the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005 was offset by the natural churning that took place, allowing nutrients to feed the algae on coral and thus prevent widespread bleaching, which is harmful.

The report partly credits official policies for keeping matters from becoming more severe.

Staff Writer Jon Burstein contributed to this report.

Robert Nolin can be reached at [email protected] or 954-356-4525.

DIVE IN Get an underwater look at the some of the damage to South Florida's coral reefs at Sun-Sentinel.com/reefs


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