Low-key biologist spurs crucial ocean research

South Florida’s coral reefs are under attack.

Dr. Andrew Baker, a reef biologist at the University of Miami, said the numbers of corals living in Miami’s waters are declining at an alarming rate. And with coral reefs disappearing throughout the world as well, famine and poverty could some day become a new reality for coastal regions like South Florida.

Home to 25 percent of the world’s marine species, coral reefs provide a vital ecosystem for saltwater fish to spawn and feed. Without these diverse underwater habitats, species of marine animals could disappear, crippling the commercial fishery industry and tourism, leaving many without food or jobs. Baker, an associate professor of marine biology and fisheries at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, is trying to prevent that.

Baker, 40, is studying coral reefs and how climate change affects them, especially by increasing water temperatures and ocean acidification. At the school’s The Baker Lab – named after the biologist – Baker and several students are studying the relationships between corals and the algae in their bodies: algae serve as a food source for corals, and corals provide a home for algae.

This connection could be coral reefs’ best hope. Baker believes that corals have the ability to prefer certain algae depending on the water temperature. Coral’s flexibility to choose and swap these algae in a changing climate is at the core of Baker’s research.

Baker thinks that grafting algae with a high thermal tolerance onto corals could create a lifeline for coral reefs. A 2008 Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation provided Baker with the funding to begin experimenting with algae and heat tolerance. His work is gaining currency as other coral scientists take note of bleaching as well as other damages from tourism, pollution and overfishing in places like Haiti and Japan.

Nearby, the upcoming dredging of Miami’s port, which supporters say is needed to compete with other ports berthing bigger ships, promises to destroy a portion of Biscayne Bay’s coral reefs. But dying coral reefs are far from limited to Biscayne Bay. All over Florida, scientists have seen sharp declines in coral over the past 25 years and, according to a study published in August by the Rosenstiel school, coral reefs suffered a 40 percent coral-tissue mortality rate after January 2010’s cold snap.

In the 1970s, staghorn coral were everywhere, said Frank Young, 55, who has been diving for 45 years and is the member-chairman of the Active Divers Association, Miami’s oldest dive club. “Now, it’s like a boneyard.”

Florida’s coral are in danger simply because of where they like to grow. Florida “is a very fragile place for corals,” said Herman Wirshing, a fifth-year graduate student who works with Baker. “Given that natural boundary plus all of the man-made threats that they face … it’s a very tricky situation with corals and keeping them healthy.”

Baker’s passion belies his low-key nature. Baker, who grew up around the sea in England, became fascinated with corals 18 years ago as a marine biology graduate student at the University of Cambridge.” In Britain, we’re never far away from the ocean,” he said. “When I was a kid, I would always be the guy looking through rock pools to try to collect whatever I could find.”

While Baker spends much time writing results and proposals for his next projects, his students like Wirshing take charge of the experiments and DNA processes in The Baker Lab.

Xaymara Serrano, a fourth-year graduate student, said one of the benefits of working with Baker is that he has an open mind about starting new research ventures. Some of his students, including first-year doctoral student Rivah Winter, were attracted to Rosenstiel largely because of Baker and his lab. “When you’re looking to join a Ph.D. program, it’s not just about applying to the school,” Winter said. “You’re really going to be fitting into a community when you join a lab.”

When Baker, who is married, isn’t in his lab seeking ways to save coral reefs, he is kept busy by his three children, ages 3, 7 and 9, who enjoy water-based activities. The children’s favorite place to go is the Rosenstiel school’s own beach at Virginia Key which is filled with sea life.

Baker enjoys his work and the ability to help the environment. “It’s a pretty diverse job,’’ he said. “No two days are the same, and I feel very much in control of my own ideas. If I have a good idea, I have the luxury of being able to explore it and see what happens – that’s really rewarding.”

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