Story at a glance
- The Florida Reef Tract is the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States and one of the largest in the world.
- The decline is attributable to bleaching events, disease outbreaks and ship groundings.
- Despite the grim findings, researchers were also able to identify certain regions that are more likely to persist in the future.
Seventy percent of coral reefs off the coast of Florida are eroding and experiencing a net loss of habitat, according to new research out of the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Science.
The decline is a result of bleaching events which are driven by climate change, ship groundings and disease. In 2014, researchers discovered an outbreak of stony coral tissue loss disease, which is decimating reefs both in Florida and the Caribbean.
The state’s coral reefs also support around 70,000 jobs and generate $8.5 billion annually, data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) show.
“Unless management strategies are implemented, Florida’s eroding reefs will likely reduce the extent to which coral reefs can sustain these important economic and ecosystem services,” said lead study author John Morris, a researcher at NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory, in a release.
However, after assessing each site’s carbonate budget, researchers were also able to identify reefs that could be hold-outs to development and are more likely to persist in the future, Morris added.
Scientists calculated carbonate budgets for 723 different sites across the region using parrotfish demographic data and information on the assemblage of organisms living on the sea floor. Of all the sites studied, 506 were losing reef habitat each year.
A positive carbonate budget means the reef is growing, whereas a negative budget suggests it is losing structure. In addition, parrotfish are particularly important to reef habitats, as they eat algae off the coral helping them stay healthy and clean.
More vulnerable reef habitats were located in the northern Florida Reef Tract, especially in the Southeastern Florida region, which is located near urban centers, authors wrote in the study.
The Florida Reef Tract extends for 350 miles from the Dry Tortugas to the St. Lucie Inlet and is the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States. It is also one of the largest coral reefs in the world.
“As these reefs lose structure, the ecosystem services they provide will be diminished, signifying the importance of increased protections and management efforts to offset these trends,” authors stressed.
Some of these management strategies could include outplanting corals to help restore lost structure, explained co-author Erica Towle, coordinator of NOAA’s National Coral Reef Monitoring Program.
“Moving forward, we can use this as a baseline to implement and track the success of management strategies,” Towle said.