October 27, 2020

Science struggles to save dying coral

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21650By Amanda B. Womac | The Ledger From Memphis Daily News

Some of the oldest and most diverse ecosystems on the planet are the coral reefs in the earth’s oceans.

Home to more than one million species, they play an important part in the health of oceans and shorelines. Not only do they buffer shorelines from waves and storms that cause flooding, but they also support commercial and subsistence fisheries.

A thriving recreational and tourism industry spotlights the vivid, bright colors and thriving ecosystems of diving and snorkeling destinations.

Unfortunately, these beautiful ecosystems are in trouble, and while living in the Classroom Under the Sea in Florida, Roane State scientist Jessica Fain taught students via video conferencing about coral reef ecology and protecting freshwater and marine ecosystems.

Since the early 1980s coral reef ecosystems in the Florida Keys and Caribbean have experienced unprecedented decline.

Two particular species of coral – staghorn and elkhorn – are considered threatened. Both of these species are fast growing, branching corals that provide habitat for fish and help protect coastal areas. They are the two most important corals in the reef system because they provide the structure for critical fish habitat.

Several issues, from disease and climate change, contribute to the decline of coral reefs. Coral bleaching is a stress response from extreme temperatures.

During these events, the coral loses its primary source of nutrients, zooxanthellae, which is housed in the coral tissue. Once bleaching begins, the survival rate of the coral is significantly reduced.

White pox disease is specific to elkhorn coral and is caused by a bacterium commonly found in human waste.

Because of poor wastewater treatment, white pox disease has increased through the Caribbean reefs. Additionally, degradation in water quality from coastal runoff is one of the leading causes of declining coral reef health.

Nutrients promote algal growth that in turn reduce oxygen levels. Sedimentation limits the ability for light to reach the coral, which inhibits the coral’s ability to feed and reproduce.

Not all is doom and gloom for coral reefs in Florida and the Caribbean.

Several organizations, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Nature Conservancy, are working on coral restoration projects to improve the health of coral reef systems; specifically the federally threatened staghorn and elkhorn corals.

In 2004, marine biologists with the Nature Conservancy began developing coral nurseries in a track of reef that runs between Dry Tortugas and Fort Lauderdale.

The project caught on by 2006 and with help from NOAA, a grant from the American Recovery ad Reinvestment Act allowed scientists with the Nature Conservancy and other partner organizations to develop the project and began studying staghorn and elkhorn corals at additional sites on St. Croix and St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Today, more than 30,000 baby corals are growing in underwater nurseries in Florida and the Caribbean. According to the Nature Conservancy’s website, more than 6,000 were transplanted onto reefs in 2012.

Experts are optimistic about the future of coral reefs because of these nurseries. They predict the young corals will thrive and reproduce, contributing to the health and recovery of the two threatened species.

IMAGE: Elkhorn coral (Shutterstock)

For more on this story go to: http://www.memphisdailynews.com/news/2015/apr/11/science-struggles-to-save-dying-coral/

See related iNews Cayman story published April 9 2015 “This woman is building a sperm bank for coral reefs so we can revive them once they die” at: https://www.ieyenews.com/wordpress/this-woman-is-building-a-sperm-bank-for-coral-reefs-so-we-can-revive-them-once-they-die/

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