South Florida: An emerging laboratory for saving the world’s coral reefs?

A diver prunes staghorn coral from a University of Miami nursery later transplanted off Key Biscayne as part of UM program to help rebuild South Florida’s ailing reef tract. Photo below: Clear evidence of sickly coral reef.
A diver prunes staghorn coral from a University of Miami nursery later transplanted off Key Biscayne as part of UM program to help rebuild South Florida’s ailing reef tract. Photo below: Clear evidence of sickly coral reef. Dalton Hesley, University of Miami RSMAS

I saw my first coral reef in April 1993: Elkhorn Reef in Biscayne National Park. I have since lost count of the reefs I have visited, but I have never lost the feeling of exhilaration when I dive in.

If you have seen a healthy reef, you know the feeling: the water line passes over your mask, and you enter a new world. Before, it was just blue water and blue sky. But now, each turn of your head is like the rotation of a kaleidoscope, a flash and a sparkle of aquamarine, green, purple and yellow.

But Elkhorn Reef, like so many reefs, is dying. It has lost most of its color and structure, and no longer has any elkhorn corals left.

The costs go beyond mere underwater scenery. As reefs decline, so does Florida’s legendary fishing, its dive and snorkel tourism and natural flood protection valued at millions of dollars in Florida and billions globally.

As a coral scientist, I ought to be depressed. Instead, I feel an urgent need to say that it is not too late to save these beautiful, irreplaceable, and economically valuable ecosystems.

Even the terrible condition of South Florida’s corals gives me hope. With so little left to lose, we have the freedom to experiment — to risk failure for the chance of a big return on investment.

And with world-class research institutions and solutions-focused local, state, and federal agencies, we have the equipment to build a laboratory to discover how to save coral reefs worldwide.

We will take another step in that direction this week, as coral scientists and managers from five continents gather in Key Largo, for a symposium appropriately called “Reef Futures.”

It will focus on coral restoration, which involves growing corals in offshore nurseries and planting them onto reefs, or rearing baby corals and using them to seed reefs with new diversity to accelerate reef recovery.

On Thursday morning, I will moderate a panel on restoring reefs in Miami-Dade County’s Biscayne region. We will also be building on the momentum from a major new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which lays out the diverse emerging technologies for saving coral reefs.

Some of those technologies are feasible today, albeit on a relatively small scale. For example, to delay the coral bleaching that often accompanies ocean warming, we could transplant corals already thriving in warmer locations and use them to build reefs in anticipation of continued climate change. Even transporting corals from Biscayne National Park to Miami Beach, just a few miles north, could buy the restored corals a couple of decades of extra time.

Or we could try to manipulate corals to get them to host special kinds of algae that help them resist bleaching, using methods that the University of Miami and the Frost Science Museum are currently trialing, and then plant these corals in strategic locations and test how much they can reduce the effects of wave action and storm surge. My University of Miami colleagues and I are currently planning a pilot study of this idea in the waters off Miami Beach.

Some of the other technologies are further off, like genetically engineering corals or making nearby clouds more reflective so the water stays cooler. These options have risks, which is why we are working feverishly to evaluate them and to field a response that is proportional to the dire threats we face.

To do that, we need to get our ideas out of aquarium tanks and into living ocean laboratories around the world. South Florida has the money, the desire, and the brain power to lead the way.

Success is not guaranteed. The hour is late, and things will only get harder in our warming world. But if we seize this fleeting opportunity to slow and eventually reverse the losses, our grandchildren and their grandchildren have a better chance of living in a world that still has its coral reefs.

Andrew Baker is a UM Associate Professor of Marine Biology and Ecology at the Rosentiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.