GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Worldwide, coral reefs comprise less than 1% of the ocean floor, and yet they provide habitat for around 25% of the world’s marine fish species. Corals are also sensitive living organisms threatened by diseases, temperature rise, and other natural and human-induced stressors.
The largest barrier coral reef in the continental United States is in southeast Florida, spanning more than 300 miles from the St. Lucie Inlet in Martin County all the way past Key West to the Dry Tortugas. Like other reefs around the world, the Florida Reef Tract (FRT) is exhibiting signs of stress and is under observation. The FRT is a focus of many local, state and federal entities, including marine specialists from the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Florida Sea Grant program, who work in tandem with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and National Park Service, among others.
Scientists have identified approximately 40 different coral diseases that affect the Caribbean and Western Atlantic region, said Ana Zangroniz, UF/IFAS Extension Miami-Dade County Florida Sea Grant agent, although only a handful are seen with any regularity. Stony coral tissue loss disease is presently drawing the most concern in the region, for both the geographic region it has covered, as well as the number of stony coral species it has affected. The cause of the outbreak is undetermined and treatments are still under investigation.
“It’s normal for 2 to 3% of the coral population to have disease,” said Shelly Krueger, a UF/IFAS Extension Monroe County Florida Sea Grant agent. “But the problem with what we’re seeing now is it’s 66 to 100% of the affected stony corals showing signs of disease once it moves into an area.”
The outbreak was first identified in 2014 and is proving unique not only for its longevity, but also for its spread to about half of Florida’s 45 stony coral species. Of the species affected, Krueger said, two of the most iconic branching species, elkhorn coral and staghorn coral, have not shown evidence that they are susceptible to the disease.
“It’s also persisted during the winter months, which is when corals tend to recover from stress,” Zangroniz said.
As part of a multi-agency response to the outbreak, Krueger and Zangroniz recently launched a citizen science initiative to train recreational divers from five counties, Martin through Monroe, to help scientists track the disease’s progression and coral recovery. These data are reported to the FDEP Southeast Florida Action Network (SEAFAN), which scientists involved in the recovery effort are then able to use to pinpoint the spatial extent of the disease and, ultimately, monitor recovery.
“This program increases the underwater surveillance network,” Krueger said. “The scientists can’t have eyes everywhere; they’re focused on the disease. This is a way to get the recreational scuba community involved to increase the number of eyes underwater.”
The class trains participants to identify 11 particularly vulnerable species of coral and what they look like when afflicted by this disease. Krueger and Zangroniz say their messages primarily focus on encouraging divers to take photographs with geolocations when they identify one of the targeted coral species under stress or affected by disease.
The program has already seen success, though. In January, a student from the inaugural class was diving in Key West and captured a photograph that was later confirmed as the first incidence of the disease’s spread to Key West from Looe Key, which is near Big Pine Key.
But South Florida isn’t the only region utilizing citizen scientists to collect important underwater data.
In Taylor County, which borders the Gulf of Mexico, another multi-agency effort led by Victor Blanco, the county’s UF/IFAS Extension Florida Sea Grant agent, trains recreational divers to identify the marine habitats that are supported by artificial reefs.
Florida has one of the most active artificial reef programs in the nation, supporting ecosystems in more than 2,000 locations throughout the state’s waters. Materials used range from specially designed concrete structures to re-use of old structures like bridges, airplanes or even ships, Blanco said.
“Artificial reefs are placed by humans to serve a specific purpose,” Blanco said. “Most of them are designed as fishing and diving destinations, but others are designed for habitat restoration.”
The program monitored one of Taylor County’s two artificial reefs, Buckeye, and trained participants in fish identification and census methods, as well as overall reef assessment.
“One of the most important observations made in Buckeye reef was the absence of lionfish, the invasive species that is a problem in other artificial reef areas of Florida,” Blanco said. “It has not been spotted in Buckeye, which is a great news.”
He said this program could help with the future development of artificial reefs, improving efforts to best attract species that promote recreational fishing and diving.
Both artificial and natural reefs support recreational activities that contribute to local economies. Citizen science monitoring programs provide opportunities for those who enjoy the habitats recreationally to contribute to their future success, Krueger said.
“When people are able to actively engage with the reefs they love, it helps them feel less powerless,” she said. “A lot of these participants have spent hours and hours underwater, so they now have the tools to report what they’re seeing and help with the disease response alongside scientists and partner agencies, like the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.”
The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS website at ifas.ufl.edu and follow us on social media at @UF_IFAS.