After paddling 80 miles across the ocean, our Crossing Crusaders land to celebrate their victory at Lake Worth beach. Yet in that final stretch, unbeknownst to many paddlers, just 100 yards from the shore they’re paddling over a remarkable center of biodiversity— coral reef brimming with marine life.
You’ll see these artificial reefs throughout Palm Beach County, with popular snorkel locations from Jupiter’s Harris Foundation to Boynton Beach’s popular pilings every 50 yards. These artificial reefs are part of a larger conservation effort to restore the coral reef that’s so critical to the health of our oceans, our ecosystem, and the economic health of Florida.
Worldwide, our oceans are in crisis. It’s estimated that by the year 2050, at least 90% of the world’s coral will be gone. And although reefs occupy less than 1% of the ocean floor, they’re home to more than 25% of marine life. Thousands of species are becoming endangered and extinct without their home. These mass losses are causing ocean and land ecosystems to collapse.
As large scale as this many sound, we’re already seeing these effects at home in Florida. The Florida Reef Tract, at 360 linear miles, is the world’s third largest barrier reef, behind only the Great Barrier Reef and the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. But this extensive reef is rapidly dying, and the damage has worsened in the past three years.
It’s time to take notice about what’s happening to the Florida Reef Tract, and how that impacts life moving forward.
WHAT IS HAPPENING TO THE FLORIDA REEF TRACT?
The Florida Reef Tract has seen massive losses in the past three years. A new coral disease originating in Miami—stony coral tissue loss disease, or SCTLD (pronounced “skittle-dee”)— has widely infected the Florida reef. Yet don’t be fooled by the disease’s cute name—SCTLD has brought the Florida Reef Tract down to an alarmingly low 3% live coral coverage.
As the disease kills off existing coral, the changing ocean environment is less and less hospitable to the growth of new coral. The ocean’s temperature and acidity are steadily rising, which is further resulting in coral bleaching and death.
Add to that all of the chemicals and toxins we use in manufacturing and transport industries—and in our sunscreen— that are seeping into our waterways and making their way to the ocean. These chemicals kill off healthy coral and marine life, and make it impossible for new coral to grow.
WHY IS THE FLORIDA REEF TRACT SO IMPORTANT TO FLORIDA?
The Florida Reef Tract protects Florida. Without the reef, the coastline’s erosion rate will rise. We’ll start to lose landmass. In fact, in Florida we already have to ship in sand from other locations, showing how the loss of coral reef is corroding our coastline.
The reef also guards us against storms. It functions as a buffer against waves, storms, floods, and hurricanes. This helps minimize loss of property and life during major events. As the reef deteriorates, it’s leaving Florida more susceptible to natural disasters and serious potential damage.
The loss of the reef will hit our economy as well. Not only will we end up with more property damage and higher insurance costs, we can also anticipate tourism to drop. Many people come to Florida to experience our incredible marine life and beaches. Without them, tourists will go elsewhere. This has already happened in Hawai’i, which has lost up to 42% of its live coral in some places, and has consequently had to limit access to some reefs and ban chemical sunscreen.
In Florida, tourism has an $89 billion impact on the economy. Even cutting this number by 5% due to reef loss would show major impacts on our economy.
Most importantly, coral is a keystone species in our ocean. If coral disappears, it will launch a ripple effect that can endanger and even kill thousands of other species up and down the food chain. As the coral dies, so do the coral-munching parrotfish, the barracudas, the sharks, and so on.
“Coral is a canary in the coalmine, if you lose that, it’s an indicator that something more massive than that is underway,” Chic Kelty, Chairman ofthe Board. If the coral dies, we will see a rapid decline in the health of our oceans—almost overnight.
REEF RESORATION EFFORTS
As the natural reef is dying around the world, conscientious and concerned people are taking a stand and making waves. One of the most widespread efforts in Florida comes from a local nonprofit in our backyard here in Palm Beach County: The Reef Institute.
The Reef Institute focuses on coral reef conservation through education, research, and restoration. Here’s a look into how they operate, and what they do.
The only way to save our oceans is to get every citizen to be a steward and fight for the health of our ecosystem. To this end, the Reef Institute applies the Environmental Protection Agency’s Stewardship Continuum to ensure their programs have the greatest impact.
The Reef Institute involves adults in restoration efforts, and educates children —our future leaders— on how to care for the environment around them. Their education efforts include running over 500 outreach events, hosting the Aquarist Club to teach about sustainable solutions to real problems, and facilitating school clubs and classes about marine life and reef safety for students ages K-12.
Interested in helping to educate about our oceans? The Reef Institute is always looking for volunteers to accompany scientists in the classroom to teach kids about coral, marine life, and saving our planet one step at a time. Fill out your volunteer application here.
Did you know we know more about outer space than we do about our own ocean? The Reef Institute leverages ongoing research efforts to understand the diseases that plague the ocean and how unsafe practices on land can hurt our ocean environment. They also work with environmental agencies to monitor, replant, and restore coral reefs and the marine life that live in them.
The Reef Institute is researching coral from Port Miami and Port Everglades to understand coral’s resiliency and damage. They also monitor the Peanut Island artificial reefs, which work as a test site to gather information about coral health and growth.
You can be a part of this coral monitoring project! Grab your swim gear, and do your part to help save our oceans. The Reef Institute needs people to help monitor coral in local reefs, and report back. Fill out your volunteer application here.
The Reef Institute also takes massive action to save our reefs. They have a coral spawning and seed banking program, which works to grow new coral that can be planted into the wild. They also work with local governments to innovate and seek solutions to current and future issues.
If you’ve made it this far in the article, we would love your help. Without every Floridian involved in the efforts, coral loss could take a major toll on our ecosystem, economy, and wellbeing.
You can do your part right now. Get involved with the Reef Institute, donate, or encourage legal action from your local government. In West Palm Beach, check out the Sustainability Action Committee’s new ordinance banning plastic straws and stirrers, and tips on how to minimize the use of single-use plastic. With just a few changes to how we treat our oceans, we can make a huge difference for the future of our state and do our part in keeping the ocean healthy for ourselves, our families, and our Crossing Crusaders and CF warriors.