Category Archives: coral

‘Holokauston’ of the Sea

The ocean is being burned alive. We might be next.

(I wish this were a joke. I just can’t find any humor in it.)

Ocean warming is killing the greatest places on Earth for life: the coral reefs. This slow warming during the past century has reached its tipping point, and we can now predict with clarity that an entire ecosystem is dying before our eyes.

As the scientist in this PBS report says, we could lose our reefs within 10 years. Predictions like this used to give us 100 years or so to save them, and that timeframe seems manageable, as if the next generation could solve this dilemma with ingenuity. But time is shrinking, and we might need to start thinking about living in a post-reef world—if we can live at all.

Humans have never existed without reefs, and we have no reference point for losing them. We have caused extinctions of singular species, but we’ve never come close to the extinction of an entire ecosystem. It is quite logical to assume that as the ocean and its shallow reefs go, so go we. An indirect, yet self-inflicted Holocaust.

The Greek word Holokauston refers to a burnt animal sacrifice. The slow burning of the reefs has the potential to sacrifice hundreds of coral species, thousands of fish species, and perhaps hundreds of thousands of associated species. We simply do not know the full scope of diversity on the world’s reefs, but they are estimated to contain a quarter of all species in the ocean.

How can such a rich system be dying? It’s inconceivalbe. Yet we know it is happening, we know why, and we know how to stop it.

It’s bloody murder.

Every thinking, breathing person needs to take a moment to decide: Do I care about people who will be alive within 10 years? If so, you must start caring, and caring deeply, about the ocean.

Any person with a heart and a brain will be outraged. You will go into the streets, get mad as hell, and get rid of any politician or business that is tone deaf on issues of climate change, global warming, and fossil fuel pollution. A climate denier, or a convenient “skeptic” who knows better, will be judged by history as complicit in murder.

I’m still not laughing.

With time running out, we probably have about 1 year left to turn this ship around. Even if you’re not convinced about the timing, is it worth the risk? Do you want to look back in a few years and judge yourself, and the human race, a complete failure?

You’ve got 2 marches on Saturdays to join this month.

Stand up for justice. The Holokauston of the Sea can, and must, be stopped.

 

 

 

 

 

New technique makes cheap and healthy coral reef babies

Don’t baby your babies—after two weeks of life, just toss them in the water and see what happens. The results will be 10 times more effective and 25 times cheaper.

These are new claims behind an experimental approach to create an orphanage for coral reefs. Instead of raising young corals for years in a pricey laboratory, remove them soon after reproduction and hurl them onto a natural reef, where they will face menacing microbes and strange sponges. The toughest babies will survive and eventually reach emancipation.

The harsh beginning is like thrusting an infant onto a brutal, muddy obstacle course with thousands of steroid-driven adult competitors. Coral experiments on the southern Caribbean island of Curacao are proving that two-week old infants survive better in the wild than the typical two-year old from the laboratory. But there must be some element of shock.

 

skip to 15:40 to see Valerie Chamberland discuss the “only specimen in the world in artificial conditions.”

“Oh my God, what is this new world!” says the youthful marine scientist Valerie Chamberland, imagining the reaction of a baby coral moving from the laboratory to the ocean only two weeks after fertilization. She says babies left in the laboratory too long become spoiled and unable to transition into the real, cruel world.

“When you raise baby corals in an aquarium, they get used to it,” she says. “We give them a reality check right away.”

Valerie Chamberland

Valerie Chamberland works with the world’s smallest corals.

At a recent meeting of specialists in Caribbean marine environments, Chamberland reported positive and cost-saving results from a few years of piloting the technique. A true internationalist, the native of Quebec works in Curacao and is finishing a doctorate for the University of Amsterdam, with funding from the German SECORE Foundation.

Taking risks with young corals is paying off.

“We didn’t know if it would work at all,” she says, sitting at a table just a few feet from the beach at the Carmabi Research Station in Curacao. The center celebrated its 60th anniversary last week when it hosted the meeting of the Association of Marine Laboratories of the Caribbean, where Chamberland and nearly 200 other scientists shared their findings.

Coral reefs worldwide have suffered huge declines in the past few decades, and climate change threatens to eliminate them from the planet this century. Researchers are scrambling to create new restoration techniques that might help them recover—or at least buy some time. Similar to reforestation on land, the field of coral gardening is so new that no one really knows what methods will stick.

Smaller than a beer bottle (from Venezuela), these concrete tripods serve as cribs for corals to grow on.

Smaller than a beer bottle (from Venezuela), these concrete tripods serve as cribs for corals to grow on.

Plenty of people can raise corals for aquariums, but few know how to release them successfully into the wild. With a new tetrapod mold designed to fit into natural reefs, Chamberland and her team go scuba diving and deploy the baby corals in ten seconds flat.

“We just wedge them into the reef. It’s super fast,” she says with a smile. The new concrete tiles came from a contest held by the SECORE Foundation, which specializes in the sexual reproduction of corals. Chamberland works with SECORE’s president, Dirk Petersen, and board member Mark Vermeij, who organized the meeting in Curacao.

The initial process of creating coral babies in the laboratory is nearly as involved as humans seeking in-vitro. Divers must wait for the full moon and other cues to predict coral spawning.

“In the field, spawning is dictated by temperature and the lunar cycle,” says Chamberland. “We use a big spawning net and we tent the colonies. On the top is an inverted funnel.”

Although the beach outside was tempting, the scientists stayed inside to listen to their colleagues in the Association of Marine Laboratories of the Caribbean.

Although the beach outside was tempting, the scientists stayed inside to listen to their colleagues in the Association of Marine Laboratories of the Caribbean.

After they catch the buoyant eggs and sperm, divers haul them back to the lab, and mix. Coral larvae must attach themselves onto the palm-sized concrete tiles, which are much larger than previous models. It’s similar to a snail clinging to the Empire State building.

Soon to be published in a scientific journal, the technique has been proven with common brain corals. Now the team is expanding its use for endangered staghorn and elkhorn corals.

The hopeful findings were a trend at the week’s meeting of marine scientists, even though they recognize that threats are severe and growing. “Not everything is dead yet,”said Mark Vermeij, one of Chamberland’s co-experimenters, when introducing a plenary speaker. That speaker’s talk ended with a hashtag: #OceanOptimism.

The smallest of coral creatures are bringing optimism to beleaguered Caribbean reefs, because their harsh childhood could result in a new breed of survivors.

More problems, less money in Biscayne

With all the world’s problems, who cares about a safe and secure national park?

Plenty of people do, and in this age of political divisiveness, we could all use something that everyone agrees on. National parks, like Everglades and Biscayne, make Floridians and Americans proud, and the possibility of losing them would certainly rally people around a worthy cause.

To do something now, contribute to my campaign to Swim for Biscayne National Park, at http://www.gofundme.com/Biscayne.

In fact, we are losing these two parks. Almost all of the land in both parks will be underwater within a few decades, due to rising seas, and strong hurricanes could be devastating in the shorter term. Then there’s ocean acidification.

Reef Rot

Have you seen this sign? Most visitors don't, because they arrive by boat.

Have you seen this sign? Most visitors don’t, because they arrive by boat.

The coral reefs within Biscayne National Park, part of the extensive Florida Reef system, face 15 rounds of punches from all angles. The changing chemistry of the sea, cause by the absorption of too much carbon dioxide from pollution, puts a slow chokehold on animals such as corals. It will take decades to determine, but acidification could prove to be the strongest force of extinction ever seen by humans.

This year, if predictions about El Nino come true, all coral reefs could be dealing with a devastating warming event. These events only need a few abnormally warm weeks to turn living corals into skeletons. The last major bleaching event in Florida was nearly a decade ago, and the likelihood of the next one keeps rising. If not this year, definitely plan on next year for more coral bleaching and disease. And it will keep getting worse, with no relief from climate change in sight.

Boating in Mud

Beautiful water hides the scars underneath, from boats hitting the shallows.

Beautiful water hides the scars underneath, caused by boats hitting the shallows.

Clueless boaters are a daily threat to Biscayne National Park. Propellers rip through the shallow seagrass and leave scars that are common sights throughout the park.

Fishers leave behind plenty of hooks and line, the most common type of marine debris in the park. When I was snorkeling there in 2013, I came across a large net lodged in a reef. It was too difficult to dislodge, but the authorities were notified.

Just this month, an enormous 6,000 pound plastic pipe washed up on Elliott Key. What a nightmare.

Just as litter accumulates, natural things decrease. Intensive fishing creates ecosystem imbalances by removing large numbers of creatures. For years, Biscayne National Park has been fighting to create zones closed to fishing, but local politicians and their fishing buddies won’t have it.

Money is Tight

You would be wrong to assume that a national park prevents hunting (such as fishing) and that is has plenty of money to operate. The budget for Biscayne National Park is around $4 million annually to fund all its programs and upkeep, about 40 employees, and more than 500,000 visitors. Although it has no entrance fee, Biscayne National Park would only need to charge $8 per visitor to cover its entire budget. Without such fees, it relies on taxes and other sources of income that may prove unreliable.

The park isn’t going anywhere today, but at the same time, its future and its prosperity are not guaranteed. Little Orphan Biscayne needs people to care for it as much as they care about the Everglades. Where are the billions of dollars for restoration of the Florida Reef? Where are the laws to prevent boaters and fishers from hacking the ecosystem to pieces?

Swimmers, stand up and take stock of Biscayne National Park. Maybe our strokes could bring new life and needed attention to this underwater treasure.

Big bay, small swimmers, tough decisions

Where should we go?

Even if you don’t swim, you can help me figure out the best place to hold an official marathon swim in Biscayne National Park, the underwater jewel just south of Miami. For a couple of years I’ve been ruminating about The Swim for Biscayne National Park, and now it’s morphed into a crowdfunding idea (http://www.gofundme.com/Biscayne). The swim’s main intention is to enlighten locals about the park’s existence, because no one will care if they don’t know it’s there.

I would love a large grant from one of the donors to the South Florida National Parks Trust, but I haven’t approached most of them, because I haven’t succeeded in drumming up much enthusiasm within my circle of influence. I’m even reluctant to talk about it, because I can’t afford to do much on my own, and I don’t have a boat to explore the park. Obviously, I could use a little boost, whether in word in in dollar.

Biscayne National Park is the large blue outline, just east of Miami (Florida Ocean Alliance 2013)

Biscayne National Park is outlined as a large block attached to Miami-Dade County. (Map from Florida Ocean Alliance 2013)

 

 

Swimming in Circles

As for the swim’s course, considering that you can fish nearly anywhere, and take your boat nearly anywhere, it’s safe to assume that you can swim nearly anywhere in Biscayne National Park.

Almost. A triangle in the Atlantic, directly east of Elliott Key, is off-limits to everything expect drift fishing and trolling. The Legare Anchorage holds an ancient British shipwreck, the HMS Foley, that sank in 1748.

Never mind, as there are plenty of other wrecks in the park’s Maritime Heritage Trail, and plenty of space to float around.

BISCmap1

The border of Biscayne National Park is less than a mile from Miami. (credit: “BISCmap1” by Mgreason, Public Domain, Wikipedia)

From the island of Key Biscayne near Miami, the park border lies less than half a mile from Bill Baggs State Park. Less than two miles away is historic Stiltsville, one of the most arresting sights in Florida. A group of wrecks surround the houses on stilts, and that loop would makes for a very cool, four-mile round trip swim. It is unknown if anyone has attempted this swim, and logistically it’s the easiest one to attempt. We could pull that crew together (kayaks and swimmers) in no time and at minimal cost.

Despite its huge size, most of Biscayne National Park is less than 12 feet deep, especially within Biscayne Bay. A deeper strip runs on the Atlantic side, further out to sea, but it becomes shallow again within sight of Elliot Key. Here are dozens of beautiful, shallow coral reefs.

That’s where I would love to stage a swim, and it’s where I went snorkeling in 2013 with classmates from Florida International University studying marine protected areas. Read more about that experience in an article I wrote for National Parks Traveler. We saw endangered elkhorn corals thriving here, which essentially represents their northernmost limit. That sight alone is worth the trip.

For a self-propelled visit from an island, the closest reef to Elliott Key requires more than one mile of swimming. Most reefs are more than three miles offshore, so swimming to them and back would require quite an effort. Not impossible, but challenging, and the exact course would require some consultations with experts.

Getting to the reefs by boat is not difficult, so another option involves hopping off a boat, like the snorkelers do, and finding a pathway between the patch reefs. With the right launching point, you could hit several reefs within a one-mile trek.

On the Other Paddle

Perhaps the most media-friendly challenge would be the “escape to Miami” swim from Boca Chita Key, a popular haunt for boaters with a scenic lighthouse. Either west to the mainland or north to Key Biscayne would involve about nine miles through shallow water. Definitely do-able, and it’s unlikely that anyone has tried it.

Depending on the currents, we may want to go one direction or another. Help! The Gulf Stream is nearby and pushes north, but there must be many other currents driven by the tides, especially around the sandy, grassy area known as the Safety Valve. Viewed rom above, the tidal stripes clearly run east to west.

Well, I guess I’ll keep studying the options. It would be fun to organize an inaugural, communal swim around Stiltsville by the end of May (the 31st?) as a way to kickstart this campaign.

Visit the Park, Any Way

Even if you don’t want to get wet, definitely plan to visit Biscayne National Park soon. When arriving by boat, consider using the existing mooring buoys instead of an anchor. Most buoys are in water of about 20 feet deep.

Arriving by car involves driving through Homestead to reach the Dante Fascell Visitor Center at Convoy Point, open until 5:00 p.m. You can’t easily swim in the shallows around here, although kayaking is encouraged. There’s a boardwalk and areas for a picnic near the bay.

Not far from shore, dolphins, manatees and sea turtles are living the dream in Biscayne National Park. Join them.

Patch of hopeful coral in Florida Reef

"Say hello to the corals." A cruise ship leaves Port Everglades.

“Say hello to the corals.” A cruise ship leaves Port Everglades.

IMG_4826

Staghorn corals grow below, perhaps even directly under this ship.

Having healthy corals growing underneath all the cruise and cargo ships entering Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades is bizarre, and now researchers have found even more of them. New maps and surveys show large patches of the endangered staghorn coral running the entire length of Broward County, as reported in the L.A. Times.

 "B Bischof/Marine Photobank."

Staghorn coral can be propagated by clippings, giving another source of hope to reefs (by B. Bischof/Marine Photobank).

It’s even more surprising when you consider that staghorn coral is rapidly disappearing from the Keys, which has a small population of about 80,000 people, yet it’s growing nearby a shoreline with several million people. How is this possible? That mystery deserves a full investigation. One theory is that a warming ocean makes temperature conditions more favorable at higher latitudes. Too bad corals can’t walk–or fly like the snowbirds.

I hope someone will offer to take me diving soon to see these splendid corals. For now, you can fly over them by visiting the map on this page from Nova Southeastern University (scroll down to “South Florida Coral Reef Mapping Flyby” on right side), and select Watch our Video! As the map moves north from Miami, notice the three almost parallel lines–those are the three reef ridges. So, so close to shore and those millions of people–yet somehow stayin’ alive.

If that map makes you dizzy, try this psychedelic view of the Strait of Florida from outer space. The warm-water corals of the Florida Reef grow inside (slightly west of) the shallow areas shaded white (click on dot for Florida Slope). Notice the red area for Florida’s lesser known, deep and cold-water reefs. Deep reefs have even more coral species diversity than shallow reefs!

Goodbye beach, goodbye reef

We have to let go of so many things in this lifetime, and one of those many things is living in Florida.

The new February issue of National Geographic magazine spells it clearly in the feature article Climate Change Economics. If you can only stomach one more article about climate change, read this one. Check out the excellent maps and graphics.

Treading Water – Photo Gallery – National Geographic Magazine.

It states:

“Many coastal places are at risk, but Florida is one of the most vulnerable. While government leaders around the world, in Washington, and even in Florida’s statehouse in Tallahassee dither over climate change, here on Florida’s southern tip more than a few civic leaders are preparing. Florida’s future will be defined by a noisy, contentious public debate over taxes, zoning, public works projects, and property rights—a debate forced by rising waters.”

On Monday, I spoke to the Miami-Dade County Delegation at a public hearing in Miami, and I sent this message about sea level rise: “STOP DITHERING.”

The noise and anti-dithering should extend to coral reefs, and National Geographic knows that too. Its video alongside the article, “A Stressful Time,” provides glimmers of hope in an otherwise hopeless situation for the world’s coral reefs.

Treading Water – Video: A Stressful Time – National Geographic Magazine.

Goodbye Florida. Goodbye house. Goodbye Florida Reef. Goodbye Everglades. Goodbye South Beach, and so on, and so on, and so on . . .

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Hello coral reefs, you say goodbye, or “No Justice, No Reefs”

It can’t possibly be as bad as the scientists say, can it? The extinction of all coral reefs within a human lifetime? How does that possibly make sense?

The injustice of the coral reef crisis, and global oceanic degradation, requires many fundamental changes in understanding and in behavior in order to bring justice. It seems insurmountable. It might make you crazy. But it is essential.

Read the evidence for yourself, and start here with this listing of valuable resources (each bullet is a link). I’ve shared it with my friends at the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting, and I hope it will inspire a year or two of in-depth stories.

Will Great Barrier Reef lose is greatness? (ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies/Marine Photobank").

Will Great Barrier Reef lose is greatness? (ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies/Marine Photobank”).

With 2015 likely bringing an El Niño pattern, the next few years could be devastating for the world’s warm-water coral reefs. Dubbed the “rainforests of the sea,” coral reefs contain 25% of all oceanic species, or biodiversity, and they are the threatened with complete extinction this century.

Resources for El Niño:

Recent El Niño years (strong 1997-8; also 2002–03, 2004–05, 2006–07 and 2009–10) resulted in higher ocean temperatures that forced many corals into a stressful state called “bleaching” (actually the expulsion of algae), and bleaching becomes fatal if temperatures remain high for extended periods and the coral’s algae does not return. The worst mass bleaching events were in 1998, and many reefs converted from a healthy coral-dominated state to an algae-dominated state. An estimated 16% of the world’s coral reefs died due to the 1997-98 El Niño.

Resources for coral bleaching:

Children born today will witness the unfolding extinction of all coral reefs during their lifetime, if the status quo continues, according to the consensus of coral experts.

Resource for consensus:

Resource for world’s reefs:

The coral reefs of the greater Caribbean region are poised to become the first large ecosystem extinction ever witnessed by humans.

This report summarizes more than 30,000 projects on Caribbean reefs.

This report summarizes more than 30,000 projects on Caribbean reefs.

They are more vulnerable than Pacific reefs because of less biodiversity and extreme human pressures. The reefs around Florida are considered a “global worst case scenario” according to the 2014 report “Status and Trends of Caribbean coral reefs.”

Before and after photos of same reef in the Florida Keys (Phillip Dustan).

Before and after photos of same reef in the Florida Keys (Phillip Dustan).

The coral reef crisis is one of the most tragic environmental stories imaginable. Problems with the story include an “out of sight” mentality and fatigue of scientific doom. It has no singular celebrity, movement, or icon (like the polar bear).

A few decades ago, reefs were marvels of diversity and productivity that seemed indestructible. Today, they have been effectively cut in half from the first scientific observation, around the mid 20th century.

Resource for history

Reefs are essential and superlative ecosystems for many reasons. Coral reefs are the most valuable ecosystem per unit, yet their total value has diminished from $21.7 billion in 1997 to $9.4 billion today (based on values from Constanza).

Resources for economic value

A listing in September 2014 brought 20 coral species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, joining the previous 2 listed in 2006. These 22 species represent an exceptionally large listing of invertebrates; there were only 54 total marine animals listed as of 2013.

The IUCN has an analysis showing that the extinction risk to corals has rapidly shifted: “Coral species are moving towards increased extinction risk most rapidly, while amphibians are, on average, the most threatened group” (see graphic below). But no modern coral species has been confirmed extinct yet.

iucnrisks

Graphic from: IUCN Red List Summary Statistics (2013). Trends in the status of biodiversity.

Resources for endangered species

Resources for Caribbean reefs/issues

Other

If you’re really inspired, join the big email Coral-List that connects coral researchers around the globe.