July 9, 2008

Coral Experts Converge on S. Fla.

By Oscar Corral, The Miami Herald

Jul. 9--The world's foremost scientific experts on coral reefs are gathering this week in Broward County to compare notes, network and identify problems and solutions for the ocean's most delicate ecosystem.

The 11th International Coral Reef Symposium in Fort Lauderdale, which runs all week, marks the first time in more than 30 years that the conference, held every four years, is taking place in the United States.

A team of U.S.-based scientists lobbied for South Florida as the host site during the 2004 conference in Japan, said Richard E. Dodge, dean and professor at the Oceanographic Center at NSU.

"Coral reefs today are under severe environmental stress," Dodge said. "People are hunting for scientific management solutions to maintain and retain coral reefs. You can't develop good management solutions if you don't have good science."

The conference marks a major coup for Nova Southeastern University, which is trying to become a global research powerhouse in the study of coral reefs.

Florida is a natural choice for those studying coral reefs because the state's shores contain 84 percent of the nation's reefs. Many of those reefs have been badly damaged over the past 30 years by a combination of factors, including coastal construction, overfishing, pollution and hurricanes, Dodge said.

While the symposium tackles global issues affecting reefs around the world, several panels and studies are emphasizing research on Florida's reefs. Some are controversial.

One example is a study by the U.S. Geological Survey, part of the Interior Department. In its report, "The Emperor Has No Coral?", it presented research conducted in the Florida Keys challenging the popular notion that humans are to blame for the demise of reefs. Twice in the past 5,000 years, they explain, reefs around the world have experienced "nongrowth." A new period of nongrowth started about 30 years ago.

"These periods of nongrowth indicate times of environmental crises that predated modern human presence in the Florida Keys," Geological Survey researchers said said in a statement.

Another discouraging conclusion: the state's dead or dying reefs outnumber live and growing reefs by about 100 to 1.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also released a report on the state of coral reef ecosystems in the United States, which found that snapper, grouper and other reef fish have been "depleted" around the Atlantic/Caribbean area. The NOAA study again sounded the alarm on the state of South Florida's reefs.

"The unprecedented development of southeast Florida and the multiple pressures from its growing urban population continue to outpace environmental protection efforts at federal, state, local and citizen levels," NOAA concludes. "The occurrence of coral bleaching and disease is rising. . . . The urgency of this situation requires a serious increase in effort and support at all levels."

The coral research community has been concerned about the health of the world's reefs since soon after the last symposium held in Miami in 1977, said Robert Ginsburg, 83, a scientist at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. Ginsburg, 83, chaired the symposium planning committee 31 years ago.

Back then, the big buzz at the conference was core boring, which allowed scientists to determine the rate of coral growth by drilling into them.

"In 1977, we were not aware of as much decline," Ginsburg said. " It was in the late 1970s and 1980s that people began to realize what was happening. Now we have serious declined all over the Atlantic and Caribbean."


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