Will impact sea life and humans alike
Hope for fragile coral reefs around South Florida and the rest of the world is eroding as fast as the reefs themselves.
Coral reefs face threats from coastal development, overfishing, inland pollution, global climate change and more recently, the lionfish.
Originally from the Pacific Ocean, predatory lionfish gobble up small fish that thrive around coral reefs. In doing so, lionfish consume many plant-eating fish, thus permitting seaweed and algae to overwhelm and damage the reefs. Scientists say the United States East Coast has never seen a marine onslaught of this kind.
“The lionfish population is increasing exponentially,” said Matthew Johnston, a scientist and computer programmer at Nova Southeastern University’s National Coral Reef Institute in Dania Beach. “I think they’re here to stay,” he added.
Concerns for coral reefs go well beyond the threat of lionfish. A 2008 report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concluded that half of the U.S. reef ecosystem is in poor or fair condition and predicted little improvement in the future.
“Reefs all over the world – and in the U.S. – are in trouble,” said Richard Dodge, dean of Nova Southeastern University’s Oceanographic Center in Hollywood.
An earlier report by the Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment, a federal research organization, offered an equally grim outlook for reefs worldwide.
The report found that coral reef ecosystems are continuing to face numerous threats from natural and human sources and that many of these hazards are increasing in several locations.
In northern Jamaica, for example, studies say that almost all the reefs are dead or severely deteriorated from overfishing and coastal runoff.
In the Philippines, damaged reefs and reduced fish populations have led to an 18 percent decrease in the amount of protein in the average person’s diet.
Ocean warming is also directly reducing coral cover through coral bleaching. As water temperatures rise, mass bleaching and infectious disease outbreaks are likely to become more common among coral populations. Moreover, carbon dioxide absorbed by the ocean from the atmosphere has begun to reduce the rate of reef building.
Scientists worry that the failure to address carbon dioxide emissions, the impact of rising temperatures and ocean acidification could make efforts to manage other coral ecosystems unproductive.
Nevertheless, scientists underscore the importance of reefs as breeding grounds for many ocean fish and other species and are hoping restoration efforts will pay off.
Some of these efforts include carefully managing human contact by working with local people who still depend on the reefs for their livelihood and weeding out predators that are unfriendly to the reefs.
Dodge said he believes putting an end to overfishing ranks as one of the most important components in the restoration process. “We don’t need to stop all fishing, but we need to be sensible,” he said. “There’s no doubt reefs are over fished.”
Preventing soil and nutrient runoff from farming near coastlines will help, as will managing coastal development, especially in smaller, crowded islands, Dodge noted.
Coral reefs are indispensible resources. They’re an important food source and provide medicine to marine life in oceans around the world.
Coral reef structures also buffer shorelines against waves, storms and floods, which help prevent erosion and the loss of life and property.
Several million people in the United States live in coastal areas near coral reefs. The safety of these communities and even the strength of their economies depend on the health of coral reefs.
Reefs are credited with generating billions of dollars each year from diving tours and recreational fishing trips in the U.S. Large numbers of scuba divers, snorkelers and fishermen regularly visit coral reefs to enjoy their abundant sea life.
In the 1990s, more than four million tourists visited the Florida Keys, home to many coral reefs, and over three million visited just one popular reef in Hawaii.
Some research has shown that certain bacteria can help
coral grow and fight disease. When these bacteria die, the reefs suffer. But some beneficial bacteria have the ability to adapt to the surrounding environment, helping the reefs to be more resilient to rising temperatures.
There is hope for the world’s reefs, if the proper preventative steps are taken, Dodge said.
“We need to limit human exposure and lessen the stressors on the reefs,” he said. “And be careful.”