The Florida area is renowned for its attractive and unique coral reef. The coral reef system that exists in this area serves as the natural habitat to many reef-dwelling species. Some of the well-known species are the Gag Grouper, which are considered very important to the fishermen. However, in the past 40 years, there has been a significant decrease in the coral reef cover in South Florida. It is estimated that over half of the native Oculina Varicosa coral that exists off the Florida coast has been ruined since the early 70’s, and there is very little evidence to show that it will ever recover.
This paper will look to illuminate the various causes of the rate of destruction of the coral reef system off the South Florida coast. The paper will use research reports by renowned marine biologists and organizations and make conclusions and appropriate recommendations on how to manage the destruction of the coral reef system.
The South Florida area is home to a large human settlement and it attracts thousands of tourists yearly. As such the coral system in the area is open and vulnerable to a number of human generated factors that cause the degradation and death of the coral in the area. The geographic location of the area also sets it in the path of natural events that affect the coral similarly.
The following are the major factors that affect the coral reef system in the South Florida region;
- Human Impacts
- Boats and Ships
- Dredging and Trawling
- Water Quality
- Natural Impacts
- Natural Variability
- Coral Diseases
- Coral Bleaching
It is evident that humans can indeed, inadvertently alter the physical attributes of the environment of the coral reef. This only further places strain on a system that is battling for survival from the effects of global warming. The Florida Keys, the coral reef system of the South Florida region, is threatened by the pressure of human activity alone more than any other aspect. An annual influx of visitors of about 3 million. In the past 45 years, the population of Monroe has grown by 160%, representing a resident increase of about 6,000. This is compounded with the increase in the number of visitors and tourist in the Florida Keys area by 15% with every passing 5 years.
The damage caused by human activities documented in the past 40 years have extended to an area of hundreds of square miles. Human activity such as snorkelers and divers standing on corals, accumulation of debris of the coast, propeller scarring sea grass, boats grounding on sea grass, coral and hard bottom areas, ship anchors breaking and damaging corals, and most of all destructive fishing methods have all been documented in the South Florida region.
The South Florida coast is a highly urbanized region, and with good weather, many of the residents in the area take part in recreational activities that cause considerable damage to the coral reef system. In some of the areas, fiber optic cables were installed. These cables cause detachment of sponges and corals and also cause abrasion.
Boats and Ships
Sea grass stretching to an area of about 121 km2 has been permanently damaged by boat propellers. The sea grass in these areas in not expected to grow back, not in the next half century. In the year 2000, with the onset of the new millennium, flocks of tourists thronged the South Florida region and 650 small boat groundings were groundings were reported within the Florida Keys Sanctuary. Over 80,000 m2 of the coral reef habitat within the sanctuary have been destroyed by large ships.
The Palm Beach and Port Everglades ports of Miami house oil tankers, container ships, military vessels and cruise ships. Within the past two decades, there have been a considerable number of severe large vessel groundings. These groundings in Southeastern Florida have damaged the reef system. The ships also leave signs of anchor damage that can be seen clearly from an aerial view of the area. These damage signs are spotted on a regular basis.
Dredging and Trawling
There is one main cause of the destruction of the South-Florida coral reefs, fishing; not just fishing, but overfishing and destructive fishing techniques. There has been a problem with fishing techniques which destroy the native coral. Several fishing techniques have been found to be destructive to the coral reefs;
- Long-line Fishing Gear
The most menacing of them would be dredging and trawling. These two methods employ the technique of dragging massive and heavy nets along the ocean floor, in the process, the coral get caught in the nets and are uprooted from the ocean floor. In a survey that was conducted in 2006, most of the upper peaks of the coral reefs in South Florida had their coral uprooted and was found to be dead. Trawler tracks found on the peaks cut 30cm deep into the ground. In the past 37 years, approximately all of the live coral that was found within the fishing areas have been ruined. In 1976, the coverage was 19%, now, in 2013, it is at 0.2%.
Dredging also done for channel deepening, channel maintenance and beach nourishment has destroyed the reef system in the Sunny Isles and off Boca Raton. This dredging process further causes silt deposition and prolonged turbidity, which affects the quality of the water. Reduced water quality indirectly affects the reefs. These dredging activities cause the development of barren areas by smothering invertebrates.
The change in water quality in the Southeast Florida, Florida Keys and Florida Bay region has indirectly affected the coral reef system in the South Florida area. Through industrial and agricultural contamination, reduced water salinity, high nutrients from sewage deposits, turbidity and upwelling, water quality has been affected to some degree. Nutrients are introduced to the coastal waters from the millions of gallons of secondary sewage from the ocean outfalls along the Florida coast line. This increase or introduction of excess nutrients (also known as eutrophication) to near shore waters affect the water quality, playing a role in mortality of the coral reef system in South Florida.
The health of coral reefs in Florida, are affected by natural environmental variability. The main natural environmental effects comprise, cold-water upwelling, winter cold fronts, ground water effects, severe storms and hurricanes. Naturally, under normal conditions, the coral reef system can absorb a given level of environmental stress, which it then recovers from. It can also adapt to intermittent events like storms and variations in temperature. However, the ability of the coral reef system to recover from these natural and climatic events is being prolonged and/or hampered by the stresses and effects of human activities.
The vitality and health of the coral reef system in South Florida is threatened by increasing coral diseases with each passing day. There are supposedly ten pathogen that are known to cause the diseases. However, of the ten, only three have been positively identified. The number in diseased coral is reported to be increasing according to The Coral Reef/Hard Bottom Monitoring Project. The number of presumptive diseases is said to be on the rise as more and more sectors of the coral reef system of the South Florida region get exposed to coral diseases.
In the year 1998, the Lower Keys and Key West regions were documented to depict a huge differences in the coral due to exposure to coral diseases. The coral in these areas were falling more prone to coral diseases as seasonal diseases in these areas also increased.
The areas dominated the Elkhorn coral, which showed susceptibility to specific disease conditions, were shown to have the highest prevalence of disease. These are the Back Reef areas. The most dominantly reported disease throughout the sanctuary during these surveys, was Apergillosis. This is a fungal disease which attacks the sea fan, scientifically known as Gorgonia ventalina.
Coral bleach compounds the effects on the reefs in the South Florida region. Coral bleaching occurs in a space of time, and the past 40 years, coral bleaching has increased in duration and frequency. The Lower Keys’ outer reef tract recorded one of the largest occcurences in coral bleaching in the year 1983. The most affected areas were the shallow fore reef habitats. The phases of high air temperature and low wind, compounded the effect as these conditions led to localized augmented water temperatures.
In July 1987, immense bleaching took place again. This was due to doldrum-like weather conditions. This incident affected the outer reefs in the Florida Keys areas. After effects of coral diseases were recorded. Three years later, in July, another huge bleaching episode took place. This time the affected were the inshore reefs that were in the whole Keys area. Most of these reefs were being bleached for the first time. The mortality of the blade fire corals, scientifically known as Millepora complanata, was raised to more than 65%. These were located in the shallow crest of Looe Key Reef.
In 1997, another coral bleaching event took place. Both the offshore and inshore reefs were affected. The accompanying El Nino event of 1998, further multiplied and extended the bleaching before the coral could recover. The El Nino event’s high water temperatures dealt a deadly blow to the coral in the region. Mortality of the blade fire coral was raised to between 80-90%. Up to now, the abundance of the blade fire coral has remained low. This 1997-1998 bleaching occurrence is by far the worst ever witnessed.
The precise causes of coral mortality are difficult to estimate form any given trepidation. However, part of the drastic drop in coral reef cover in the South Florida region within the past 10 or so years can be attributed to coral bleaching. Several research communities have observation results that coincide with numerous reports by monitoring programs. They shoe an alarming deterioration of coral health.
The rate at which the coral cover in the South Florida region is being depleted is alarming. The inadequate in-depth research on the diseases affecting the coral is affecting the ability of scientists to set up measures to counter these diseases. The population around the South Florida region that is supported by the coral reefs are engaging in recreational activities that are damaging the reef system.
Fishing methods employed in the region coupled with the number of huge vessels housed are causing serious and, by far, the most amount of damage to the reef system. The reef system has the capability to regenerate, but the human activities hamper this natural process
There is need for an emergency set of management structures that can concentrate on alleviating the human impacts that can be controlled. There is need for these management structures to create policies that govern issues such as vessel anchorage, dredging, nutrient input, fresh water management and control of the kind and extent of recreational activities that are allowed along the shore line ad off the coast. The management of storm water and waste water is essential for the improvement of the quality of the water for the survival of the coral in the South Florida region.
Further research is required for the causes and effects of the diseases affecting the Coral in the region. Such research would equip coral reef management agencies and environmental organizations in maintaining coral reef health.
Ample coral reef protection will necessitate the involvement of regional leaders and taking of proactive steps from all stake holders, from the local business people to the community living in the South Florida region.
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