Ocean acidification roundtable highlights emerging challenge for Florida waters

An “invisible” threat has begun to harm Florida’s marine resources — but the Sunshine State has unique strengths and opportunities to respond — said scientists, government officials and other key stakeholders Wednesday during a statewide roundtable on ocean acidification.

The roundtable — hosted by Mote Marine Laboratory and Ocean Conservancy at Mote’s campus in Sarasota, Fla. — wove together the latest scientific knowledge; fostered collaborations among researchers, resource managers, community environmental leaders, legislators and industry representatives; raised questions for local, state and regional planning; and will benefit others in Florida and beyond through a special report expected in the coming weeks.

Ocean acidification (OA) is occurring due to increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, some of which enters the ocean, making seawater acidify. OA could cause substantial changes to the ocean, and as a result, affect people and communities that depend on a healthy ocean.

“Mote is first and foremost a research and science-education organization, and we don’t take sides in politics or advocacy issues — however, we know one thing that is irrefutable from the data: A healthy blue environment is vital to the quality of life and the health of the economy in Florida, and marine resources all around the state are vulnerable to ocean acidification,” said Dr. Michael P. Crosby, President & CEO of Mote.

One vulnerable treasure is Florida’s barrier coral reef, which helps attract millions of visitors, supports vital fisheries and ecotourism, protects against storm surges and contributes about $6.3 billion to the state’s economy. Research by Mote and others shows that coral reef organisms — including threatened and endangered corals of the Florida Keys — can have a harder time growing and building their carbonate-rich skeletons as waters acidify. Lab experiments have shown that OA conditions can hinder key steps in producing the next generation of federally protected elkhorn corals.

“As an avid diver, I have seen firsthand the beauty of coral reefs and the abundance of organisms that call these reefs home — and as the mother of a young son, it is important to me that our coral reefs are thriving for him and for future generations to enjoy,” said Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, who spoke at the roundtable and has dived with Mote scientists at their Keys-based, coral restoration nursery. She praised roundtable participants for working to study and address OA impacts that threaten Florida’s underwater resources.

“I applaud the leadership of Mote Marine Laboratory in bringing together a cross section of Florida’s marine scientists and representative from diverse stakeholder groups to discuss a statewide approach for research to address ocean acidification impacts,” Raschein said. “What Mote, the Ocean Conservancy, and all of you are doing today will help translate and transfer the science and knowledge of ocean acidification to the broader public. It will also help legislators better understand the importance of supporting the restoration and enhanced resiliency of Florida’s marine resources.”

“We wanted to foster and expand the great conversation already taking place in Florida,” said Dr. Sarah Cooley, Science Outreach Manager at Ocean Conservancy. “This roundtable has shown us that there is a lot of energy to address ocean acidification here, and that momentum is going to take ocean acidification science out of the research space and allow for action.”

Roundtable highlights

OA is here, now.
Outside the research community, OA might seem an obscure or distant threat. However, it is already beginning to affect Florida’s natural resources.

For instance, coral reefs in some northern areas of the Florida Keys have experienced notable dissolution of their calcium carbonate structures during winter, possibly because colder months mean less seagrass to absorb carbon dioxide. This impact is occurring 30-40 years sooner than expected by some scientific predictions, but early predictions have mainly used open ocean data — and OA may operate differently in shallow, coastal waters. This effect is seasonal now, and some reefs in the Keys are still doing well, but impacts may increase as waters acidify.

“The implications could be far reaching,” said Dr. Billy Causey, Southeast Regional Director for the National Marine Sanctuary Program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “There are so many carbonate organisms on the reef. Whether it’s coral or calcareous algae or the lobster we think about so much, so many living things have calcium carbonate in their bodies.”

Shellfish beds are a key resource affected on the Pacific coast and potentially vulnerable in Florida.

It remains unknown whether or how OA might impact other habitats and structures around Florida’s coast, including the carbonate-based geology that underlies reefs and land-based structures.
OA isn’t happening in a vacuum.
Florida’s natural resources face multiple threats. For instance, coral reefs can become stressed by warming temperatures — another consequence of increased carbon dioxide in the air and water — along with pollution, storms and other impacts. Stressed corals may be more susceptible to one of the top threats: disease.
Marine life may be “winners” or “losers”
OA impacts may vary among different species of marine life or genetic strains within a species. Studying these differences is critical for maintaining and restoring marine ecosystems.

For example, Mote has raised thousands of corals for reef restoration efforts based at its Florida Keys campus, and Mote scientists are currently studying which genotypes of threatened staghorn coral might fare best amid OA and other stressors.

OA knowledge and goals must be shared through clear, concise messages so that Florida communities and decision makers can respond wisely.
Part of the challenge is highlighting an “invisible” threat.
“If carbon dioxide had been orange in color and smelled like rotten eggs, things would be different,” said Dr. Dave Vaughan, Manager of the Coral Reef Restoration Program at Mote. “If you tell people there is carbon dioxide affecting the oceans by lowering pH, they may not think of it the same way they think of an oil spill or another visible concern. But maybe the current research can drive home that OA is a reality today and not just a concern for the future.”

Roundtable participants discussed how to better share scientific findings in helpful ways, such as producing unified communications materials, synthesizing meaningful research results, highlighting the economic value of resources at stake.

Supporting OA research through public and private funding, particularly through philanthropic giving, is essential for addressing this threat.
Florida is already rich in OA data and environmental monitoring programs. Future efforts can piggyback.
“There’s a lot of good baseline data in the literature and deep down in the records from state and federal agencies, counties and research institutions – pH, alkalinity, temperature, salinity, calcium, nutrients, paleo-biology and paleo-climatology,” said Dr. Erinn Muller, Manager of the Coral Health and Disease Program at Mote. “Scientists need to step back and synthesize this data to show the story of what’s already happening with Florida ecosystems.”

Roundtable participants suggest both analyzing the available data and conducting more research to understand key concepts like how OA varies through time and space, and which keystone or iconic marine animals might be affected.
We can be optimistic.
Florida may host habitats that naturally buffer OA impacts. For instance, scientists have begun to study possible benefits of increased seagrass beds, which sequester carbon dioxide (like trees do).

In addition, scientists, policymakers, industry representatives and others have shown great interest and energy for addressing OA in Florida, and there is enough knowledge to act now.

For example, the recently introduced federal bill HR 2553: the Coastal Communities Acidification Act of 2015, has the support of 10 Florida representatives. This bill would require federal officials to study the vulnerability of coastal communities in Florida and around the country to ocean acidification.

“We should use the best available science now to begin mitigating the impacts of ocean acidification by implementing major coral restoration initiatives.  The lack of 100-percent scientific certainty of outcomes should not paralyze us from addressing critical impacts to ecosystems and organisms that are happening now,” Crosby said.

About the roundtable hosts
This roundtable is a collaboration between the Ocean Conservancy and Mote. Ocean Conservancy, a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C., works at the intersection of OA science, policy and communications to raise awareness of OA and to give people who depend on the ocean for food, jobs, and recreation the opportunity to tell their own stories. Mote is an independent, nonprofit marine science institution based in Sarasota, Fla. Mote research includes a major focus on OA, particularly on how it affects coral reefs.

Mote is spearheading key OA research using an enhanced state-of-the-art OA system established through a National Science Foundation grant and based at the Mote’s Summerland Key campus. Over the last two years, Mote has held three focused workshops on OA with scientists from around the world and co-sponsored an international workshop in Israel on OA impacts to coral reefs. Mote recently co-hosted a second international workshop in the Florida Keys for scientists from the U.S., Guam, Cuba, Israel, U.K., Jordan, and Italy — strengthening Florida’s presence as a world-hub of OA research. Mote and its partners have been studying the impacts of OA on corals, in combination with other stressors such as climate change and disease, while developing innovative methods to help restore coral reefs in our lifetime with the coral genetic strains most likely to survive changing ocean temperature and acidification. A new $5-million international coral reef research and restoration facility is currently being built by Mote in the Florida Keys, and it will have a major focus on impacts of OA.


Hayley Rutger, MOTE Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, 4 September 2015. Full article.



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