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Between Bleaching and Boats, Florida’s Coral Reefs Are Struggling to Survive

The reefs are crumbling in acidifying waters and buried from dredging, according to new reports

Boulder brain coral is usually common in Florida's coral reefs. (Norbert Wu/Minden Pictures/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

The coral reefs that stretch along the coastline in southern Florida and the Florida Keys are the only ones in the continental United States. However, recent studies have found that not only has the majority of the delicate ecosystem been killed by ocean acidification, bleaching and disease, but much of the reef near Miami’s port has been damaged by efforts to dredge the bay to make way for large ships.

According to a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), large-scale dredging of Miami’s port resulted in the death of 93 percent of coral near the bay due to being buried by sediment. The project was intended to make the port deeper in order to accommodate a new, larger generation of freighters resulted. However, this finding directly contradicts a December study by the Army Corps of Engineers that blamed the majority of the coral’s death on a virus known as “white plague,” Lizette Alvarez reports for the New York Times.

While a survey the Army Corps of Engineers found that 85 percent of the coral at the site was killed by white plague, a devastating disease that causes coral bleaching around the world, scientists at the NOAA disagree. According to their report, more than 3,000 feet of the delicate coral died from suffocation caused by sediment stirred up by dredging, Alvarez writes.

“This Florida reef is as important to our country as the sequoias of California, and we are losing it faster than we can figure out why,” Rachel Silverstein, the executive director of the nonprofit environmental organization Miami Waterkeeper, tells Alvarez.“There are a lot of stressors that are impacting and killing coral reefs, but this is a hyper-local example of something we could easily have prevented,” Silverstein tells Alvarez.

Damage from construction isn’t the only threat facing the reef. According to a new study published in the journal Global Biogeochemical Cycles, the growing acidification of the world’s oceans is causing the limestone that forms the backbone of Florida’s coral reefs to crumble.

“We don’t have as much time as we previously thought,” Chris Langdon, study author and professor of marine biology and ecology at the University of Miami says in a statement. “The reefs are beginning to dissolve away.”

And the south Florida’s coral reefs aren’t the only ones at risk. Right now, coral reefs around the world are being threatened by a variety of factors, including bleaching caused by acidifying oceans, rising temperatures around the world, as well as disease, David Fleshler reports for the Florida Sun Sentinel.

Just last week, scientists announced that more than half of Australia’s Great Barrier Reefs investigated were severely bleached—an unprecedented event that signals harsh years ahead for the world’s coral reefs.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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