September 6, 2005

Florida Conducting Coral Reef Study

IN THE WATER OFF SUMMERLAND KEY, Fla. (AP) -- Hovering above a coral reef, two divers in wet suits examine and measure the dozens of coral beneath them, recording their findings on clipboards and waterproof paper.

The pair are conducting a new, state-funded study to analyze the health of the coral reef off Florida's coast that scientists hope will change the way reefs are cared for worldwide.

The data will show scientists for the first time the health of the entire reef - about 300 miles from Martin County to the Dry Tortugas - and identify the healthiest areas that are least effected by bleaching, the loss of corals' vibrant color.

When those healthy areas have been mapped, officials want to step up protection and replicate in other parts of the reef the factors that help them resist and survive bleaching.

The stakes are high. Reefs attract more than $1 billion in tourism to the Florida Keys alone. As many as one-fifth of the world's coral reefs have been destroyed and another half are damaged but could be saved, according to a 2004 study. About 30 percent of coral off the Keys died after a single mass bleaching in the 1990s, officials said.

And scientists anticipate more bleaching due to climate change and other factors.

"We don't have a proactive approach to deal with these large scale changes that are coming," said Phillip Kramer, director of the Caribbean Marine Program for The Nature Conservancy, which has taken a leading role in protecting reefs.

Kramer is directing the Florida Reef Resilience Program, a pilot site for this new approach to reef monitoring and management, along with the reefs off of Palau in the Pacific. The findings here will be shared with stakeholders around the world, and if successful, replicated at other major reefs.

While past studies have focused on damaged areas of coral reefs, this one will make a comprehensive assessment of the whole reef, including parts that have never been studied.

"It does require a pretty big change in how we do things, a change in mind-set," said Kramer, who likened the approach to conducting a political poll with random sampling.

About 30 people from 16 agencies, universities and organizations collected data from 174 randomly chosen sites along the reef over about two weeks. The final sites are being studied this week.

At each site, a pair of divers recorded the number and species of coral, and the degree of bleaching. At one site in about 15 feet of water, stark white fire coral stood out among the nearby pastel varieties, some of which swayed in the current.

The fire coral, which looks like a thick twig with branches, is more sensitive and often the first to bleach, making it a bellwether for the reef. Much of the coral at this part of the reef was pale, an early stage of bleaching, Kramer said.

Bleaching occurs when the tiny colorful algae that live inside coral is expelled. It is a symptom of other stress on the coral - possibly high temperatures, pollution or disease - and can lead to death.

The data collected at this site and others will be used in the coming months to create a map of Florida's reef. Then scientists can identify and replicate the factors make coral reefs more resistant to bleaching.

For example, if shade from a floating patch of algae is found to help prevent bleaching, managers could use an artificial shade to protect at-risk reefs, Kramer said. Or, if some types of coral are found to be genetically resistant to bleaching, other reefs could be seeded with that strain of coral.

"It's a study and an analysis absolutely focused on improving management," said Kacky Andrews, Director of Coastal and Aquatic Managed Areas, for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which has paid $175,000 to get the study up and running. "It's not science for science's sake."

Billy Causey, superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, said the results would help him use permitting effectively to protect the healthy reefs and heighten public awareness.

"If we have pockets of resilient reefs than we can use various management tools to protect them," said Causey, who has been involved in getting this program started for a decade. "It's an opportunity to get an even stronger message out."

In the future, organizers want to conduct the study before, during and after a major bleaching event, Kramer said. A new program at Mote Marine Lab enlists boat captains, divers and others who frequent the seas to monitor and report for early signs of bleaching, which could be used to tip off the survey.

And identifying the causes of bleaching and how to prevent it could help preserve the industries that support the boat captains, divers and others on the sea.

"We're not only trying to look at resilience of these systems," Kramer said, "we're also looking at the resilience of the industries that use them."


On the Net:

The Nature Conservancy:

Florida Department of Environmental Protection:

Mote Marine Lab: