Coral reefs are one of the oldest types of living systems on earth, and certainly one of the most spectacular. They are massive underwater structures formed by the limestone skeletons of tiny invertebrate animals. Reefs house a greater diversity of body forms, chemistry, and animal phyla (thirty-two compared to the eight that inhabit the most biodiverse ecosystems on land). Phyla comprise the second largest category of living things, after kingdoms. Coral animals begin life as free-floating larvae, but settle on the sea floor in sedentary colonies.
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The term “coral” applies both to these animals and to their skeletons, particularly the skeletons of stone-like corals. Many different organisms, including molluscs, sponges, and worms, help shape reefs, but hard corals and various algae are the major architects. In effect, the corals build limestone, because their skeletons are made of Calcium Carbonate. The skeletons deposited by these corals and other organisms accumulate, along with sand and other debris, to form the backbone of the reef. Over tens of thousands of years, chemical and mechanical changes turn the reef into true rock.
The body of a coral animal consists of a polyp, which is the living portion of the coral. A polyp is a hollow, cylindrical structure attached at one end to a surface, the other end is a mouth surrounded by tentacles which gather food and can sting prey to paralyse it. Polyps live in colonies, which grow from 1 to 7 inches, depending on the species. Coral polyps are classified as animals. Microscopic algae live within the animal tissues in a symbiotic relationship. The algae turn sunlight into carbon and sugars, which are then available to the polyp.
In turn the polyp filters particles out of the water and excretes waste (nitrogen and phosphorus) that becomes available to the symbiotic algae. It’s this very tight nutrient recycling within the coral itself that allows these corals to live in very low-nutrient waters. There are three kinds of reefs: atolls, barrier reefs, and fringing reefs. Atolls are formed out in the middle of the ocean by volcanic subsidence, while fringing and barrier reefs form near continents. Florida contains both of these kinds of reefs, not as far offshore as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, but not terribly close either.
Most are eight to eleven kilometres (five to seven miles) offshore. All three kinds of reefs can have associations, called patch reefs, which are small, shallow-water clusters or offshoots. In Florida, patch reefs can be as close as one hundred meters to the shore. Ancient limestone reefs have occupied the Florida peninsula intermittently over the past 150 million years. Florida’s present coral reefs came into existence 5,000 to 7,000 years ago, when sea levels rose following the Wisconsin Ice Age. The reefs in the Florida Keys are part of the third largest barrier reef system (360 square kilometres from Miami to the Dry Tortugas).
Coral reefs are continuously being both built up and decomposed, so different parts of a reef are in varying stages of succession. Coral reefs are very fragile, because reef-building organisms cannot thrive if the surrounding water changes significantly. Coral reefs require very specific conditions in order to grow: a solid structure for the base; warm and consistent water temperatures (averaging between 20 and 30 degrees Celsius); stable salinity; moderate wave action; and clear water that is low in nutrients and plankton.
The water on a healthy coral reef is clear because there are very few nutrients, so plankton that would cloud the water are few. In general corals grow slowly, but they are extremely efficient at living and reproducing in these conditions Reefs matter in many ways: Links to other coastal ecosystems: such as mangroves and sea grasses. Sources of medicine: Because corals and most other reef-dwelling species move either very little or not at all, they rely on biochemical warfare for both offence and defence.
They have developed strong and very diverse chemical compounds, and a number are proving to have significant anticancer, antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory properties. For example, cytarabine, derived from the Caribbean sponge Tethya crypta, induces remission in certain forms of leukaemia and is also useful against the herpes virus; pseudopterosins from the Caribbean sea-whip Pseudopterogorgia elisbethae have powerful anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties; and prostaglandins, which have a wide range of clinical applications, can be found in large quantities in the Caribbean sea fan Plexaura homomalla.
About six thousand unique chemical compounds have been isolated from reef organisms so far, and this potential pharmacopoeia has barely been tapped. And coral, which is porous and quickly reabsorbed, is used to repair human bone, with no risk of implant rejection or transmission of infection. Living breakwaters: Reefs protect coastal areas from storms, floods, and erosion. They’re key to many a surfer’s “perfect wave,” and contribute sand to the growth of beaches.
Evaporation basins: Reef flats and lagoons may play a key role in regulation of the sea’s salt content, removing salt by acting as evaporation basins. Shapers of landmass: Reefs play a part in the formation of tropical islands through deposition and accumulation of Calcium Carbonate rock (limestone) and sand. Mediators of global climate: Corals remove large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere as they grow, actually “fixing” 700 billion kilograms a year. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. Coral Reefs are also very important to the Florida economy:
Recreation and tourism: tourists spend about $1. 2 billion annually in the Florida Keys. Food fisheries: the value of reef fisheries (including shellfish and other invertebrates) off the Keys is estimated at $48. 4 million. Other industries: reefs support a large trade in aquarium fish and are a habitat for sport fish. Most present-day reefs have probably been growing for 5,000 to10, 000 years. But their continued survival is now threatened. Reefs around the world are now declining at an unprecedented rate–one that far outstrips our understanding of the problem.
Few long-term studies of coral reefs have been conducted, and there is considerable debate about the overall health of reef ecosystems. Still, most scientists agree that reefs worldwide are in crisis. Caribbean reefs appear to be in worse condition than Pacific reefs. They naturally have lower levels of biodiversity, which makes them more vulnerable to structural change. They house significantly fewer species of fast-growing and reef-building corals, and diseases have affected the entire basin while the far greater size of the Pacific has tended to keep outbreaks reef-specific or regional.
The third largest barrier reef system in the world is located off the Florida Keys. Its recent decline has been attributed to multiple causes, almost all of which involve human activity. Most scientists agree that the greatest threat to Florida’s reefs is degraded water quality. When land is cleared for development or agriculture, fertilisers, pesticides, and eroded soil wash out to sea when it rains. Pesticides can weaken the corals and make them more susceptible to disease. Sediments can smother or scour the reef, impairing coral growth.
The sea is also where most of the sewage and wastewater from Florida Key residents and their one million annual visitors ultimately ends up, and this pollution also degrades the water quality. In particular, fertilisers and sewage have significantly increased the level of nutrients in the water of Florida Bay. As a result, phytoplankton utilise these nutrients and grow exponentially. This causes various kinds of algal blooms: phytoplankton turning the water green, toxic blooms including red tides, and macro-algae overgrowing and smothering the reef. As phytoplankton increases, so does the turbidity of the water.
This cuts down the amount of light reaching the zooxanthellae (tiny one-celled algae that live inside coral polyps), so photosynthesis within the coral is adversely affected. Poor water quality affects other parts of the coastal ecosystem. Coastal ecosystems act as buffers between land and sea, reducing negative impacts in both directions. When stressed, they are less effective. There are three key environments in Florida that are intimately related. First of all, the mangroves along the shore, secondly, the grass beds in shallow water, and finally, the coral reefs at the edge of the shelf.
Water flows through this system, and the health of each system determines the health of the next. Every time somebody cuts down mangroves, it affects the sea grass beds somewhat further off shore. Every time a sea grass bed is destroyed, it affects the coral reef even further off shore. So all these interconnected habitats need to be preserved as a whole. Increased nutrients in the water were blamed for a major sea grass die-off in the bay in 1987, further stressing the reefs. Silt normally held down by the sea grass flowed out of the bay and ended up on the coral reefs, clouding the water.
This sediment hurts the reef in several ways: it impairs photosynthesis; it forces corals to expend energy cleansing themselves; and it can even bury them entirely. Studies showed corals only 4 kilometres from each other grew at dramatically different rates: the corals closer to Florida Bay grew only half as much as offshore corals. The location of the Florida Keys makes them particularly vulnerable. They are close to the heavily populated North American coast, and ocean currents place them downstream of the Caribbean basin.
The Loop Current, which travels clockwise in the Gulf of Mexico from the Yucatan Peninsula, to the Mississippi River, by Tampa Bay, and ultimately to the Florida Keys, carries stormwater and agricultural runoff containing pesticides, heavy metals, oil, and other toxic waste from more than half of the United States. Even sediment from the Amazon finds its way through the Florida straits. Compounding the problem is the fact that most of the bedrock underlying the islands of the Florida Keys is highly porous limestone, the remains of ancient reefs, through which contaminated waters easily flow in and out.
Preliminary studies indicate that ground waters beneath the reefs do contain nutrients, principally ammonia, at levels many times higher than that of normal seawater. These nutrient-rich ground waters can seep into the reef’s water columns with each change of the tide. People harm reefs in lots of other ways: Overfishing: fish and other reef species are caught by subsistence fishermen and overharvested by commercial ones. This has reduced overall populations, and specifically that of certain fish that control algae on the reefs.
Destructive fishing practices also harm reefs badly. These include using crowbars to dislodge clams, abalone, and other marine invertebrates from reefs at low tide, and also the illegal use of explosives and cyanide poisoning Ship groundings: thousands of ships and boats have run into Florida’s reefs since colonial times. Evidence is mounting that reefs struck frequently by boats recover more slowly from storm damage than untouched reefs. Collecting of coral and other reef species: specimens are collected live for aquariums or for curios and jewellery.
Mining of coral rock and sand: These are used for building materials, and coral is mined for jewellery. Redirecting water flow: Cross-sections of Florida reefs show that they began to decline beginning about eighty years ago. That coincides with the completion of Henry Flagler’s railroad across the Keys, and also with the redirection of water flow from the Everglades by developers and government officials. The railroad stopped Florida Bay from flowing into the Atlantic Ocean, while water from the Everglades was redirected towards Florida’s East Coast instead of into Florida Bay.
Alteration of coastal habitats for urban development: mangrove deforestation and dredging, draining, or filling in coastal wetlands all affect water quality. Tourism and recreation: careless divers break coral, kick up sand, feed fish, and remove specimens; careless boaters drop and drag anchors across fragile coral, leak oil, and dump garbage. Corals have been hit by diseases. Since the 1970s, Florida’s corals have been struck by an unprecedented number of diseases: white pox, black band, yellow band, white band, white death, and white plague.
Outbreaks are more frequent, more intense, and wider ranging than ever before. Many of these diseases are new to science and their causes are unknown. The diseases might result from a bacterial or fungal infection from the Pacific Ocean introduced to the Atlantic through bilge water of ships crossing the Panama Canal, or from animals or other materials carried from the Pacific. Unlike Pacific species, Atlantic corals have no immunity to these pathogens. Poor water quality could also be causing disease. The fungus Aspergillus is thought to be transferred by land runoff into Florida Bay and infecting corals directly.
Diseased fish swimming on the reefs may also be contributing. Airborne contaminants could also be a culprit. At first it was thought to be sewage flowing through porous limestone from the Keys that was infecting coral reefs miles offshore. Scientists then began wondering why the same diseases infected coral reefs in remote areas of the Caribbean. They now suspects that red, iron-rich African dust borne by transatlantic trade winds are carrying bacterial spores to reefs, and correlations between dust and disease outbreaks are presently being studied.
The iron also stimulates algal growth, which is bad for reefs (see explanation earlier). Other environmental factors could be causing harm. Hurricanes and storms also damage reefs and devastate coastal areas. While large waves cause severe short-term damage to reefs, recovery is rapid, and part of a cycle of disturbance and recovery that helps shape healthy coral reefs. When the reef is already stressed by pollution or overfishing, though, it may not be able to recover from storm damage. In the early 1980s, a mysterious epidemic killed almost all the long-spined black sea urchins in the Caribbean and South Atlantic.
The “sheep” of the reef, the urchins grazed on the seaweed that competes with corals for space. Whether attributable to global warming, or urban runoff, warmer water affects reef chemistry. For example, it can lead to overproduction of oxygen by zooxanthellae, which damages the polyps. Rising water temperatures also mean a rise in sea levels. Because algae and reef-building corals need sunlight for photosynthesis, the reef must grow relatively near the ocean’s surface to survive (generally within thirty meters). This means that a rapid rise in sea level could “drown” corals that don’t grow fast enough.
One widespread symptom of systems under stress is coral bleaching, which takes place when the microscopic algae that lives inside the coral polyps are expelled. With the loss of these photosynthetic algae, corals lose their coloration and rapidly turn white. Within a number of weeks, the coral animals die and the “bleached” reef is sterilised and no longer regenerates. The causes of coral bleaching are uncertain, but one possibility is the rise in sea surface temperatures. Tropical seawater is generally very stable in its temperature, rarely rising above 31 degrees Celsius.
However, within the last ten years, those maximum temperatures have been exceeded frequently and they’ve stayed hot for a long time, a change drastic enough to kill the algae. (Water that is too cold can also damage reefs. ) Corals may be an early warning sign for global warming. Recently, many reefs around the world have bleached several times, most often when local water temperatures were unusually high. Parts of these reefs are now dying. At least one species of coral may have already become extinct due to bleaching.
The Florida Keys Reef Monitoring Project is designed to assess the health of the reefs in the 2800-square-mile Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. A three-scientist team (Jim Porter, Phil Dustan and Walter Japp) designed and implemented the coral reef part of the program. Fortunately, they combine over sixty years of experience, because the question the study asks–“Are the reefs changing? “- is a complicated one. It’s grounded not just in reef ecology but in population biology, which involves sophisticated mathematical analysis of the equilibrium between births and deaths in a community of organisms.
One hundred and sixty-eight monitoring stations were established in 1996 and the first assessment was conducted in 1997; there will be at least four more. The project’s primary focus is on overall water quality. Parallel studies are examining the health of fish and of sea grass communities. The purpose of the survey is to figure out what’s causing the reef decline in the hopes that it can be arrested and prevented. The best way to determine the health of corals is to monitor over time to see whether the corals are growing or staying the same or possibly even dying.
That’s done by taking a series of still life pictures and a series of Hi8 videos, over time, in exactly the same locations. Forty-two reefs were chosen, each with four video units consisting of two stainless steel survey pins twenty meters apart. Lines are attached to those survey pins and then a video camera or still life camera can be used. That way we’re quite sure that the camera has photographed exactly the same substrate each time. These measurements have to be repeated in a very precise way, because coral reefs are much more dynamic than originally thought.
Without those pins to reference exactly where the camera is, we’d be lost the next time measurements needed to be taken. Images from the video are converted into digital information, and stored on CD-ROMS. At least 20,160 frame-grabbed images will be analysed each year for changes in the colour array, because coral communities that are sick change colour. In the same sense that a doctor can often tell when a patient is sick by a peaked look, we see that on a coral reef. Vibrant colours turn to grey; brilliant hues turn to white.
Marine scientists are always working on other kinds of monitoring, including underwater site-scanning sonar techniques and low-elevation aerial photography, which is useful in evaluating broad-scale geological changes such as sediment movement after hurricanes. Satellite monitoring is also being explored, but the resolution and interpretation of such remote images is still in the early stages. Going out in boats and “sea truthing” information from more remote platforms is time-consuming. At this point there’s no substitute for getting in the water and actually looking at the plants and animals themselves.
The key thing to remember for coral reefs is: Look-, but dont touch! As a boater: Do not dispose of trash, bilge washings, and other debris on or near the reefs! Tie your boat to reef mooring buoys, or anchor in sandy areas; don’t anchor in coral Consult tide and navigation charts, and steer clear of shallow areas As a fisherman: Avoid shallow coral reefs when trawling. Hooks can scar and injure the coral, and leave live coral vulnerable to infection by microscopic organisms. Try to retrieve all fishing gear, especially monofilament line, which animals can swallow or become tangled in.
Observe size and catch limits As a swimmer or diver: Enjoy diving on the reef without touching or bumping into it. Control your flippers and snorkels. Even the lightest contact can hurt sensitive polyps. Wear a float coat so you can adjust gear without standing on or sitting on coral. Avoid contact with the ocean bottom, where fragile organisms can live. Try not to kick up sand, which can smother reefs. Take home photographs and memories instead of seashells. Don’t remove marine specimens; most captured tropical fish die within a year. All coral is protected.
It is against the law to collect, harvest or sell Florida corals in state and adjacent federal waters. Please don’t feed the fish; it disrupts their natural habits. In terms of sheer natural beauty, coral reefs must rank as nature’s masterpiece. They have some of the most bizarre and beautiful forms of life on this planet, certainly the most colourful. Sea fans, various types of corals, brilliantly coloured fish, and invertebrates. They all live in three-dimensional spaces that are some of the most beautiful scenes ever witnessed on earth.
The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Plan, adopted in 1990, will be implemented over the next ten to twenty years to clear up water around the Keys and Florida Bay. Under the plan, some Key reefs will be off limits to visitors, and on others, limits or prohibitions will be placed on how many fish, shells, and other animals can be removed.. The purpose of the Environmental Protection Agency’s five-year Reef Monitoring Project is to determine what causes reef damage so these fragile ecosystems can be protected more effectively.