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The Wildlife Forecast:  Watch the Coral Reefs for Effects of Climate Change (by Patricia Behnke)

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By Patricia Behnke
Florida Fish and Wildlife
Conservation Commission


Watch the Coral Reefs for Effects of Climate Change

Images of red and purple coral with darting blue and orange fish dance in my imagination when I think of Florida’s coral reefs. My dreams turn to nightmares, however, when I study the forecasts for the precious and important habitat.

“The coral reefs are the sentinel for climate change,” said Patty Glick from the National Wildlife Federation and author of “Preparing for a Sea Change in Florida.” “And in the Caribbean and Florida we’re already seeing the signs.”

{sidebar id=1}Coral reefs are called the “rain forests of the sea” because of the number of species they harbor. They cover only 0.07 percent of the ocean’s floor, but they are home to one-quarter of the world’s fish and marine species.

The creation of a coral reef is a complicated process and takes thousands of years. Yet with increasing sea temperatures a reality, coral bleaching could wipe them all out by the end of this century.

The vibrant colors of the corals are actually caused by algae that feed the coral. High temperatures create stress, and the coral expels the algae. When this “bleaching” occurs, the coral loses its color.

“Coral is highly sensitive to temperatures at higher thresholds,” Glick said. “When bleaching occurs, it means the coral is starving to death.”

So what do we do? Glick suggests we can begin by urging our elected officials to pass laws and regulations that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Personally, we can do all those common-sense things that reduce pollution. And when enjoying the beauty of Florida’s reefs, we must view, not touch.

The most extensive living coral reef in the United States lies adjacent to the Florida Keys, serving as the first line of defense during storms, protecting our beaches from further erosion. They may offer a form of human protection, too. Corals may be home to medicines that hold the cure for today’s incurable diseases. The limestone deposits of the coral could become invaluable as a source for surgical bone replacements. The natural sunscreen of the coral is being studied by scientists around the world.

But for how long? One of the first effects of global warming may very well attack the sea before we see visible effects on the land. Rising sea temperatures are already having an impact.

“The Tropical Atlantic region’s temperatures have risen 1 degree Fahrenheit over the past three decades,” Glick said. “A full degree may not seem like a lot, but coral is highly sensitive, so it is very detrimental.”

Should we give up and rush out now to see a dying ecosystem? As we make our own personal sacrifices, rest assured there are groups doing something now. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC) Coral Reef Evaluation and Monitoring Project monitors the condition of coral reefs annually throughout the Florida Keys, Southeast Florida and the Dry Tortugas.

{sidebar id=1}“The focus of our monitoring is to observe changes in coral cover over time,” said Rob Ruzicka with the FWC’s coral reef program. “We document changes in status and trends of the coral reef sites we monitor for the managers at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the National Park Service.”

Places such as the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary help educate the public about the importance of reefs.  The Nature Conservancy’s Florida Reef Resiliency Program identifies the resilient areas of the reefs and studies why those areas have been able to survive and revive.

In 2008, the FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute was one of the sponsors of the International Coral Reef Symposium, which brought together the world’s top scientists, conservationists, economists and educators to advance coral reef science, management and conservation. Gov. Charlie Crist signed a bill at the symposium that eliminated the use of ocean outfalls for wastewater disposal in Southeast Florida.

“Coral reefs are extraordinary living ecosystems that draw visitors, support our economy and protect our beaches and homes from erosion and storm surge,” Crist said in a press release. “Florida will continue to take steps, such as new legislation reducing nutrients and other pollutants in the ocean, which will protect these sensitive ecosystems for residents and visitors for generations to come,”

According to the FWC, reef-related expenditures generate billions of dollars in sales and provide thousands of jobs in Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. Environmentally and economically, we can not afford to lose our coral reefs.

The forecast for our coral reefs may seem bleak, but if we do our part to support the programs that pursue their conservation, we may find we’ve slowed things down just enough to ensure the coral reefs survive for our grandkids.

This article originally published on May 27, 2009.

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