Our coral reefs are incredible worlds home to millions of marine animals large and small. They are drivers of our tourism economy as visitors from around the world come to snorkel and scuba dive. Because of their proximity, coral reefs play a vital role in protecting our shorelines. Now, we need to protect them too.
Florida's Coral Reefs
In our part of the coast, octocorals, including animals such as seafans, and stony corals are common. They are very slow growing. Our reefs began forming five to seven thousand years ago! They include three basic developments, with those closest to shore being the shortest and simplest and becoming more fantastical in size and diversity farther out to sea. Coral reefs are not rocks. They are living, moving and reproducing organisms that are vital to the health and balance of the entire ocean ecosystem.
Changes in our climate could have catastrophic consequences for the reefs. According to NOAA: "As temperature rise, mass bleaching, and infectious disease outbreaks [amongst coral] are likely to become more frequent." Carbon dioxide has the added effect of changing the chemistry of sea water, rendering it more acidic, and slowing the rate at which reef growth occurs. Pollution and damages from fishing (or overfishing) and boating accidents and development present additional challenges.
According to Florida's Department of Environmental Protection, coral reefs "protect our coasts by reducing wave energy from storms and hurricanes." The reefs also serve as habitats for many marine species, including those that are vital to the commercial fishing industry. Finally, the marine plants, algae and animals found on coral reefs are often used to produce medicines, health aides and beauty products. So while the reefs need us, we need them too!
The Florida Coral Reef Protection Act increases the protection given to reefs of the coasts of five Florida counties, and allows fines of $150 to $250,000 to be levied for damage to or anchoring in a coral reef. However, there is much more we can do to save our reefs.
Artificial Reef Construction
One of the ways that people can protect reef ecosystems is to offset damage that could occur.
The upcoming beach renourishment project that will deliver much needed sand to over three and a half miles of beach in Fort Lauderdale will also include the construction of 6.8 acres of artificial reef as mitigation for direct impacts to 4.9 acres of nearshore hard bottom.
Nearshore hard bottom are reefs found in less than 15 feet of water and are composed of tube-building polychaete worms or coquina shells. These reefs provide habitat for hundreds of species of algae, vertebrates and invertebrates and reduce wave and current energy to protect against coastal erosion.
Beach renourishment projects often end up burying nearshore hard bottom habitats and this is why there will be an artificial reef constructed off the coast of our city and those nearby to offset the impacts to the hard bottom. Coral species grown in a nursery will be transplanted to the site in order to better the chances that a sea bed community colonizes the artificial reef. The desired outcome of the project is for the benthic community and species composition of the artificial reef area to be comparable to the nearshore hard bottom habitat before construction.
When out on our waters be sure to observe all signs, placards and buoys designed to protect you and our reefs. Maps of our shoreline are available at marinas and on a variety of websites. The Southeast Florida Coral Reef Initiative provides a map of Miami-Dade and Broward safe mooring sites. There are 122 mooring buoys located off our shoreline. Maps of other areas are available through their website as well.
The Friends of Biscayne Bay have also recently made the SE Florida Coral Reef Locator map available through esri ArcGIS mobile apps.
The Loxahatchee River District has produced a poster series entitled "Preserving Nature by Design." It includes a dozen beautifully illustrated posters, packed full of information and ready for download and printing. They are perfect for classrooms, and to educate neighbors wherever people care about our waterways and marine life. This poster shows how we are connected to the coral reefs, the different marine species that make coral reefs their home, the varieties of coral, and how you can help to protect them all.
The Southeast Florida Coral Reef Initiative (SEFCRI) strives for collaboration between governmental and non-governmental parties to "identify and implement priority actions needed to reduce key threats to coral reef resources" in all four counties of Southeast Florida. The SEFCRI team includes scientists, marine resources professionals and stakeholders from the public and private sectors. In addition to the pages linked here, their website also includes news about current restoration projects, lesson plans and resources for teachers and students, and information for those interested in careers.
Through this program, FDEP "leads the implementation of the Southeast Florida Coral Reef Initiative and contributes to the National Action Plan to conserve coral reefs. The Coral Reef Conservation Program (CRCP) is also charged with coordinating response to vessel groundings and anchor damage incidents in southeast Florida, and developing strategies to prevent coral reef injuries." Visit their website for information on strategic plans for the reefs, the various CRCP programs, and partnerships with other organizations.
This conservation program is administered by NOAA and is linked to the others listed here. They have a particular role to play in deep sea coral research and conservation. NOAA offers similar resources but with a perspective on how climate change, fishing and pollution are affecting the reefs. They too offer resources for educators, news subscription and ways for students or volunteers to get involved. NOAA's National Ocean Service offers a compatible coral reef wepage with access to everything from the Coral Reef Information System to a fun Coral Discovery Kit for students and teachers.