Imagine diving into the water off the South Florida coast. You glance at a school of minnows, spot a stingray and then look down to see a barren, gray and decaying ocean floor. The fact that this image could soon be reality is what inspires the mission of the Rescue a Reef program at the University of Miami.
Coral reefs are an essential part of underwater ecosystems—they protect coastlines from wave damage, provide habitats for underwater organisms and assist in carbon fixation. They are among the most diverse ecosystems on Earth. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “about 25% of all marine species are found in, on and around coral reefs.” But they’re in grave danger. Three coral species are listed as endangered on the Endangered Species Act, while 22 others are listed as threatened.
The primary threats to coral reefs, according to the NOAA, are pollution, the effects of climate change, and unsustainable fishing practices. The most common results of these phenomena are what is known as coral bleaching. Coral reefs can become “stressed” when a change in water temperature or increased pollutant particles occur. This causes algae, an essential symbiotic organism for coral reefs, to leave the coral. Without the pigmentation, energy source and protective nature of the algae, corals are left fragile and susceptible to disease.
The rising ocean temperatures also affect the health of coral species—as the water warms, its acidity levels increase. “Carbon dioxide is an acidic gas, so when it dissolves into the water, it lowers the pH,” said Chris Langdon, a marine biology professor at University of Miami. Acidification of the ocean makes it hard for coral to reproduce and more likely to die at a faster rate than it can grow.
One of the worst diseases for a vulnerable coral to come into contact with is white band disease. It destroys coral tissues and creates a distinctive white band by melting away algae and exposing the coral’s underlying skeleton. In the 1970s, it nearly wiped out the Staghorn and Elkhorn corals, two vital species in the Caribbean area. “Staghorn grows fast, and it creates 3D structures where tiny fish can hide. From an ecological standpoint and a habitat standpoint, the Staghorn coral is super important,” said Langdon.
It is still unclear where this disease originated, but some experts believe human behavior is to blame. “It may be from sewage that got released into the water,” Langdon said. Focusing on Staghorn restoration in particular may be especially helpful in overall reef restoration. “If we replace it, it will produce a bigger change on the reefs in a shorter amount of time than boulder corals that grow extremely slowly,” Langdon said. “We are now taking actions to recover it. The numbers are still low, but increasing.”
The University of Miami launched the Rescue a Reef program in 2015 with a purpose to propagate threatened coral species and help regrow the dwindling population. According to their website, the organization has planted over 25,000 coral species since they began. “Rescue a Reef is our local effort,” Langdon said. “There are many throughout the Caribbean trying to do the same thing.”
While Rescue A Reef does help raise and replant coral, they also focus on community outreach. By having people plant young coral from a nursery themselves, they’re educating community members about the importance of coral reefs and the effect of their decline in underwater ecosystems. “Rescue a Reef is really the citizen science component of our lab, where we bring members of the public out on coral restoration trips to witness the problem hands-on, to be tangibly part of the solution and to learn from scientists in the process,” said Madeline Kaufman, a team member of Rescue a Reef.
To re-propagate the Coral reef populations, Rescue a Reef typically uses a nail or cable tie to hold the corals in place. But they’ve also been working on other ways to replant the coral. “There is pretty exciting stuff going on,” Kaufman said. “One of our master students has been experimenting with how to use cement to plant coral. It has gone really well and it’s way cheaper. You use piping bags, like to ice a cake, and fill them with cement to attach a coral to the reef. Then, it will grow onto the reef.”
Those who can’t dive can still help their coral restoration effort. Rescue a Reef hosts many events on land to raise awareness of the endangered species they are trying to protect. “We do the trips, but we also reach out with tabling events and movie screenings,” said Kaufman. “We want the community to participate, but mostly we want them to learn about coral restoration.” People can also engage in individual actions such as wearing coral safe sunscreen, choosing seafood from sustainable fisheries and volunteering for costal protection organizations.
words_grier calagione. photo_charles gonzalez. design_giselle spicer.
This article was published in Distraction’s winter 2020 print issue.