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Florida is home to the third largest coral reef in the world, but warming ocean temperatures, pollution and other stressors have killed more than 90 percent of certain coral species. Luckily, scientists say with improved restoration techniques and increased public awareness, hope is on the horizon.  

Read on to learn more about the benefits of coral reefs, major threats, and practical steps you can take to save our corals.  

Why should I care about coral reefs? 

Besides providing habitats to many marine organisms, reefs also protect coastlines from damaging storms, provide nitrogen and other nutrients to the marine food web and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. 

According to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Florida’s corals also support jobs, tourism and fisheries.  

Coral reef benefits by the numbers:  

  • Coral reefs provide economic goods and services worth about $375 billion each year. 
  • Coral reefs in southeast Florida have an asset value of $8.5 billion, generating $4.4 billion in local sales, $2 billion in local income, and 70,400 full and part-time jobs.
  • In the United States, about half of all federally managed fisheries depend on coral reefs. 
  • NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service estimates the annual commercial value of U.S. fisheries from coral reefs to be over $100 million. 
  • Reef-based recreational fisheries generate over $100 million annually in the United States. 

What are the biggest threats to coral reefs? 

Warming ocean temperatures: 

One of the biggest threats facing coral reefs is climate change. Since the late 19th century, the global ocean temperature has risen by 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit. These rising temperatures put stress on the coral polyps, causing them to expel the algae that gives coral its color. The algae gives coral the food it needs to survive.  

While a bleached coral is not dead, and corals can survive bleaching events, they are under greater stress, are less resistant to other threats such as disease, and are thus subject to mortality,” reads an article on the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary website.  

Ocean Acidification 

The world’s oceans absorb about one third of the atmosphere’s excess carbon dioxide. As humans emit more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere through activities such as burning fossil fuels, the ocean becomes more acidic. A more acidic ocean slows the growth rate of coral skeletons.  

Physical damage or destruction 

Damage to corals from coastal development, dredging, quarrying, destructive fishing practices and gear, boat anchors and groundings and recreational misuse (touching or removing corals) also pose a threat to healthy corals.

For best practices for boating around corals, visit: Responsible Boating Helps Coral Reefs 

Land-based pollution 

Pollution on land can make it into coastal waters through many pathways. For example, excess nutrients from agricultural and residential fertilizer can support growth of microorganisms, like bacteria and fungi, that can lead to disease in corals. 

Overfishing 

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “overfishing can alter food-web structure and cause cascading effects, such as reducing the numbers of grazing fish that keep corals clean of algal overgrowth. Blast fishing (i.e., using explosives to kill fish) can cause physical damage to corals as well.” 

Stony coral tissue loss disease 

According to Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium“as of March 2019, stony coral tissue loss disease is plaguing nearly half the coral species on the Florida Reef Tract, with mortality rates frequently exceeding 80 percent. The outbreak stretches from Martin County to Key West, with potentially similar disease signs being investigated at other Caribbean reefs. Susceptible corals include maze, brain, boulder and other species groups that form the essential foundations of the Florida Reef Tract, an economic engine worth $8.5 billion and supporting 70,400 jobs.” 

How can I help? 

Dalton Hesley, a senior research associate at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science who focuses on how coral reefs connect with Florida’s coastal communities, said there are three main ways to contribute to coral reef restoration.  

Become a citizen scientist.  

“There are a number of different citizen science programs that are either looking at water quality, fish surveys, coral reef restoration, shoreline surveys, beach cleanups,” Hesley said. “All of these have impacts on coral reefs.” 

For information on citizen science opportunities, visit: Rescue a Reef 

Take steps to lower your carbon footprint. 

“If we really, really work to lower our carbon footprint, we can have a sizable impact in a positive way on coral reef sustainability.” 

Not sure where to start? Luckily the Earth Institute at Columbia University has compiled a list of the 35 easiest ways to reduce your carbon footprint. 

Donate to coral reef restoration or simply spread the word. 

Hesley said that if you don’t have the time or energy to become actively involved through citizen science efforts, you can support the science with a monetary donation.  

“In many cases, these programs are either looking for additional in-kind contributions or online donations that really go a long way to supporting the cause,” Hesley said.  

Raising public awareness is also another step you can take to help. Let your friends know about the threats to coral reefs and the steps they can take as well.  

“Regardless of how people contribute whether from hands on participation or a small donation to simply choosing to use reusable water bottles and reusable bags over plastic,” Hesley said. “Every single person does make a difference. 

Want to learn more about Florida’s coral reef? Visit these links to learn more.