SCTLD Observer Training Launches with Swimming Success

Florida’s Coral Disease Event

The Florida Reef Tract (FRT) has an asset value of $8.5 billion per year and supports 70,400 jobs in South Florida. Unfortunately, an outbreak of stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD) has devastated 26 species of reef-building corals since 2014. Since the outbreak is unprecedented in scale and duration, it is vital to increase the underwater monitoring network. Late in 2018, my colleague Shelly Krueger and I were contacted to assist with engaging the recreational SCUBA diving community in disease monitoring efforts. Rather than duplicating efforts, we joined the Citizen Engagement team, one of the 11 response teams that are part of a 40+ partner endeavor to understand and respond to the disease event.

We determined that our objectives were two-fold. The first is to increase the level of understanding of the disease event within the recreational SCUBA diving community. The second, create an observer training program to engage SCUBA divers to identify SCTLD and perform roving diver surveys to report disease presence/absence and coral recovery. These objectives were of critical importance, as the FRT is over 300 miles long and extends through five counties: Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, and Martin.

After piloting the training program last fall at Florida Keys Community College, we moved forward with hosting local training events. I have hosted four events, training close to 40 divers. Shelly has trained more than 15 divers. These include inter-agency partners who are teaching others to identify corals and characterize coral condition. We hope that monitoring will increase as we continue into the spring and summer season as boating conditions improve. Says participant and University of Miami graduate student David Adams, “one of the things I most enjoyed about the coral disease training was how easy [Ana] made it to differentiate between the various species of corals… I feel that [Ana’s] in-water teaching style allowed divers to relax and feel comfortable enough to make a meaningful contribution to citizen science and monitoring.”

Florida Sea Grant Extension Agent Ana Zangroniz, right, works with two UM Scuba Club members to teach organism identification. Photo: Nick Martinez.

An Important Outcome

One of the most significant results from this program so far was that one of the observers we trained early on identified and reported a sighting of SCTLD on a reef off of Key West. Scientists later confirmed the sighting as SCTLD, indicating that the disease boundary had made it to Key West. As the spring turns into summer, we hope to have this network of observers throughout the FRT, continuing to monitor the disease spread and very importantly-the recovery in areas where the disease has already moved through.

The “Ah-Ha” Moment

For me, one of the most gratifying parts of this particular program has been enlightening divers to the condition of our reef system. In the scientific community, we often discuss the concept of “shifting baselines,” or a way to measure the condition of something based off of previous observations. Florida’s coral reefs have changed substantially over the last 40 or so years, and those working in marine science as well as recreational users of the reef have described the changes they’ve noted during that time. Over the last 6.5 years of SCUBA diving in Florida, I too have witnessed these types of changes, in particular, through watching the reef change as a direct result of the coral disease outbreak. Being able to communicate those changes to other divers has been hugely significant. By teaching divers to be able to identify what is a coral versus what is not a coral, and how to distinguish whether or not a coral is healthy is tremendously important as we move forward into the 21st century.

If you are a SCUBA diver interested in scheduling a training workshop for your group, please contact me at azangroniz@ufl.edu.

Members of the UM Scuba club happily completed their Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease classroom training. Photo: Hubert Wilcox.