Mote explores new threat to Florida’s coral reefs

Exuberant colors and wildlife pull tourists to the Great Barrier Reef off of Australia and inspire trips to the Florida Keys.

While many are awestruck by the beauty, they don’t realize that coral is just as susceptible as we are to getting sick.

Viruses, pathogens and warming water all pose threats to coral reefs. And these risks are exacerbated by the latest and most chronic threat — ocean acidification.“The reef structure that has taken millennia to build slowly is dissolving,” said Erin Muller, program manager of Mote’s coral health and disease program.

Scientists from Guam, Cuba, Italy, Jordan and Israel gathered at Mote Marine’s education center last week to discuss the growing threat of ocean acidification for the world’s coral reefs. At panels and breakout sessions, they discussed the causes, impacts and possible remedies.

Increased carbon dioxide in the ocean is causing “osteoporosis of the sea,” which means calcium carbonate skeletons of coral and other mollusks are starting to dissolve, a Mote press release explained.

This makes coral more susceptible to “bleaching,” a process in which high temperature water causes the algae coral depends on for food to leave the coral’s tissue. This causes coral to die.

Five of the Caribbean’s 65 coral species were put on the threatened or endangered species list in the last year. Florida’s two main branching species, the kinds that help sustain reef structure, made the list in 2006.

Muller is among a team of Mote researchers studying resilient species of coral that may be better suited to survive ocean acidification and warming.

Coral is a source for novel medicines that could potentially fight cancer, Muller said. The reefs provide shoreline protection by absorbing wave energy and reducing erosion. Corals are also important biologically.

“They are the most divergent and productive ecosystem,” Muller said. “They are the homes for thousands and thousands of vertebrates and invertebrates.”

“You also need to be thinking about the yet-to-be-discovered drugs and products that can come from our coral reef and environment,” said Dr. Michael Crosby, Mote’s president and chief executive. “There are all of these untapped resources that are there.”

Florida’s great barrier reef tract, the third largest in the world, contributes about $6.3 billion to the state’s economy and more than 71,000 jobs, ranging from commercial fishing to recreational diving and ecotourism, Crosby said.

Mote is planning to build a new $5 million facility in the Keys to further focus its research on ocean acidification.

“Ocean acidification really hasn’t gotten the attention that I think it deserves,” Crosby said. “It’s very important to the marine environment and by extension to our economy and overall quality of life.”

Jessica Floum, Herald Tribune, 8 September 2015. Article.


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