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Diving with the Disturbed: Florida's coral reefs

A Q & A with scientist Meaghan Johnson, who talks about our work among Florida’s coral reefs

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Scientific monitoring of corals occur along the entire Florida reef tract. recently caught up with Conservancy marine science coordinator Meaghan Johnson at her office in the Florida Keys to learn more about the Florida Reef Resilience Program she helps coordinate.

Let’s begin at the beginning. What IS the Florida Reef Resilience Program? (Try saying that five times fast.)

Meaghan Johnson:

I know. It’s like trying to say “anomalous” and “anemone” in the same sentence.

Everyone just calls it FRRP. The program itself came out of group discussions with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the state of Florida and the Conservancy about improving coral reef health and the sustainability of reef-dependent human activities (like diving, snorkeling, fishing) by focusing on reefs that can resist or recover from coral bleaching and other stresses.

So briefly, FRRP is a partnership that brings together different groups – scientists and reef managers from public and private organizations, state and federal governments and other people from with fishing businesses and diving tourism operations – who all have one main thing in common. They all care about what’s happening to the reef. And our common goal is to improve and sustain the health of Florida’s coral reef system along its entire length, from the Dry Tortugas all the way up to the St. Lucie Inlet in Martin County.

I’m a native Floridian – born in the Keys – and I didn’t know the reef went that far north.

Meaghan Johnson:

Many people don’t know how far the reef goes or how special it is, but it’s all part of the same system.

Florida and Hawaii are unique that way – they are the only two [American] states with significant coral reefs. There are other kinds of reefs, but because corals have such specific requirements – right water temperature, right water depth, right water clarity – coral reefs only occur in a relatively few places around the world where the conditions are just right.

And those special habitat needs are part of the reason coral reefs are in such danger from climate change?

Meaghan Johnson:

Exactly. I think climate change is the ultimate threat to corals. The Conservancy’s Marine scientists have identified climate change as a key threat to corals around the world. Climate change – actually global warming in particular – amplifies hurricanes, bleaching, coral diseases, and brings other things that we haven’t experienced yet. We know that both warm and cold water temperatures are directly tied to bleaching events. Corals are affected if the temperature varies even 1.8 degrees from normal. But in addition to that, we’re going to see more and more changes in the pH of the water and how will that affect the fish? How will it affect the corals?

When you’re talking pH, that’s the acidity level of the water, right? Why does that matter?

Meaghan Johnson:

As the acidity level goes up, the corals have a harder time producing calcium carbonate [the building blocks of a coral reef] and if they can’t produce calcium carbonate – reefs will stop growing and then slowly erode away, and all the fish and other creatures that rely on reefs - and the people that depend on those creatures - will suffer as a result.

What is the ultimate goal of everyone involved in the program?

Meaghan Johnson:

Figuring out what we’re facing with climate change, how much damage there is, how things are changing and how we might help the reefs adapt to and survive those changes is the main reason we have a Florida Reef Resilience Program. We all know there are places out in the sea that are healthy, that are more resistant to bleaching or disease, and there are some other areas that aren’t.

We want to locate those areas that are resistant and find out what factors are making them more resistant. For the reefs that do bleach and then come back, we want to know what makes them so resilient. Why is this reef bleaching out? But this other reef nearby, with the same types of coral species, is doing fine?

I assume you’re using “resilient” in the general sense, meaning a resilient reef can “bounce back” from damage?

Meaghan Johnson:

Well, scientists rarely use words in a general sense, but in this case, that’s right. Of course, when the group that would become FRRP first met together to go over goals and protocols in 2005, we spent two days debating the meaning of “resilient.” I think the final definition ended up being something like six sentences long.

Okay, in less than six sentences, what does “resilient” mean to someone who is not a reef scientist?

Meaghan Johnson:

A resilient reef is able to resist or rebound from any sort of stress, whether it be hot water or disease or a storm or some other disturbance. Think about that person you know who never gets sick even when everyone else is under the weather. That lucky person is resilient and there are corals and reefs that are just like that.

And how do you identify resilient reefs?

Meaghan Johnson:

We go looking for them. One of the projects under FRRP is dedicated to monitoring the reef. We currently have 12 partner agencies that work the length of the reef from Martin County all the way to the Dry Tortugas to monitor the reef throughout the peak bleaching months (usually August and September).

The formal name of the program is “Disturbance Response Monitoring,” (DRM - another acronym for you). We jokingly call it “diving with the disturbed” because we’re monitoring the reefs for disturbances, like bleaching or disease.

Briefly, the monitoring surveys are carried out in randomly selected places around the reef by scientist SCUBA divers from private and public organizations who are trained to identify individual coral species and the specific types of disturbances and can tell the difference between a bleaching event and damage caused by disease or a storm or someone running their boat too close to the coral. Some corals are so fragile that even the brush of a diver’s fin can kill them.

So FRRP and DRM started at the same time?

Meaghan Johnson:

Essentially – yes. I know it’s a little confusing, but the disturbance monitoring falls under the FRRP’s wider umbrella, which includes projects like staghorn coral restoration, outreach efforts and international exchange of information about reef resilience.

We began monitoring in 2005 and visit portions of the entire reef to get a sense of what’s happening out there. We couldn’t do it without the core DRM divers – many who volunteer their own time to the project.

We also work closely with Mote Marine Laboratory and are grateful for their “BleachWatch” program and the dive boat operators and recreational snorkelers and divers who call in and report reef damage or bleaching events that we might not otherwise learn about.

So that’s five years of data on the reef’s health. How is all that data used?

Meaghan Johnson:

One of the most useful things about this project is that all of the data is available online to reef managers. It’s very accessible and having the right information is a big part of making good reef management decisions. The data itself rolls up to tell us where the resilient reefs are, where the big spawning corals are. We get size, we get species, we get as much data as we can and we use it to make maps that tell us where the healthy, resilient reefs are and where the not-so-healthy, not-so-resilient reefs are.

If I understand then, you want to know where the most resilient corals are so you can make sure the reef system, not just the individual reefs, has enough of them to survive?

Meaghan Johnson:

Yes – and to make sure that the resilient corals are close enough together so that they can breed. As long as there is good connectivity between the protected or well-managed reefs and as long as we have enough good, resilient corals in close proximity to each other, when they spawn their offspring can help repopulate degraded reefs nearby or even many miles away.

So identifying, studying and protecting resilient reefs is one of our best hedges against climate change?

Meaghan Johnson:

Right now, for coral reefs, yes. It’s a key strategy in helping us learn how to help corals adapt to climate change. And variations of the work we’re doing is being carried out along coral reefs all over the world.

One of the Conservancy scientists who helped develop the monitoring protocol for the Keys, Dr. Phil Kramer, is now the director of The Nature Conservancy in the Caribbean. And the FRRP itself is modeled after the reef monitoring work of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority in Australia as well as climate change and coral reef studies the Conservancy manages in Hawaii and Indonesia.

Are you hopeful about the future of coral reefs?

Meaghan Johnson:

I am. I think most of us are or we wouldn’t be doing this. We are always learning. And nature can be very resilient across the board, not just certain corals.

If we can continue to find and identify the species and the places that are thriving, we can increase our knowledge of why they are thriving and use that information to help other corals and reefs withstand the changes we already know are coming: rising sea levels and warmer, more acidic water.


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