During a recent press event, held in Marathon in the Florida Keys, I witnessed the release of a 200-pound loggerhead turtle named Mr. T and, in the process, renewed my acquaintance with Ritchie Moretti, who founded The Turtle Hospital (turtlehospital.org) in 1986. This nonprofit hospital has rehabbed 1,500 turtles and survives solely by donations.
This section of the Keys is well on the way to recovery after the devastation of category 4 Hurricane Irma, which hammered the area in September 2017. But while everything above the water’s surface has improved, what’s going on below is another story. Since 2014, America’s only live coral reef — third largest in the world — has been under attack by a mysterious malady with the oddly benign name “coral disease” aka “stony coral tissue loss.” The disease has spread to encompass nearly the entire length of the reef, leaving the most spectacular coral formations dead in its wake. This matters, because while coral reefs comprise just two percent of the ocean floor, they support 25 percent of its life.
This isn’t a story about one reef. Coral is the canary in the coal mine, giving us a readily observable barometer to the ocean’s health, and this outbreak indicates there’s trouble brewing.
So why should someone in Minnesota care about a coral reef in Florida? It’s a national treasure that is easily accessible to a large number of American boaters who tow boats of all sizes south. Given that, this situation has ecological and economic concerns. The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates Florida’s reefs pump $6.5 billion a year into the economy and create 70,000 jobs.
So what’s responsible for this plague that can completely kill a coral formation in just a couple of months? The pathogen causing it hasn’t been identified yet, but the likeliest culprit is poor water quality caused by nutrients from leaky septic tanks and fertilizer and pesticides runoff. The rise in ocean temperature and a weakening Gulf Stream are also likely contributing factors.
Aside from improving water quality, what can be done to save the reefs? Stopgap measures include chiseling “firebreaks” around diseased places on individual corals and ramping up campaigns to educate boaters and divers not to touch the coral and to disinfect gear when moving from site to site. Another prong in the attack is to replant reefs with new, resilient “super corals.” Mote Marine Laboratory has taken the lead and by year’s end will have planted 60,000 new coral formations.