Florida’s coral reefs are part of a global chain of reefs that together are one of the Earth’s most productive and biologically diverse natural systems. Coral reefs provide habitat for more than 1 million species of plants and animals and nearly one-third of all fish worldwide.
It is estimated that 500 million people around the world rely on coral reefs for food, income and coastline protection.
An Economic Engine
In Florida, the coral reefs are home to more than 100 coral species and more than 400 fish species. The region’s booming tourism economy relies directly on healthy reefs and fisheries, while lobster, shrimp and other marine life sustain a vibrant commercial fishing industry.
Anglers, divers and other reef users spent almost $4.4 billion in Florida, and reef-related activities employed about 81,300 people in 2001. Healthy reefs, mangroves and coastal wetlands also provide an important service to coastal communities by buffering them against more frequent and intense storms. In a recent study, Florida’s coastal resources were estimated to provide, on average, more than $11 billion a year in storm protection services.
Threats from Climate Change
Coral reefs are extremely sensitive to human impacts, and vast changes in the seas are destroying coral reefs at an unprecedented rate and scale. Habitat destruction, unsustainable and destructive fishing, pollution and invasive species have historically been the most critical threats. However, climate change adds new threats and exacerbates existing threats.
As a result of climate change, warmer ocean temperatures greatly stress coral reefs and increase their vulnerability to disease. A rise in ocean temperatures of just a few degrees can destroy huge areas of coral reefs through bleaching — a stress response that causes a coral to lose its colorful and nourishing colony of beneficial algae, and which ultimately may kill the coral.
Additionally, climate change means higher levels of carbon dioxide in ocean waters making the waters more acidic and thus chemically inhospitable to coral reefs.
Rebuilding Florida's Reefs
Climate change and other threats have also reduced reef-building coral in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to less than 10 percent of its historic cover. Three years of analysis by the Conservancy showed that no reef zones from Key West to Martin County are immune to bleaching. This important ecosystem is rapidly disappearing, which has huge implications for the state’s recreational, commercial and environmental communities.
The Conservancy’s climate change adaptation project will identify corals and reefs that are resilient to climate impacts and local stresses so that they can be used to restore degraded reefs. It will also rebuild coral reefs by growing and planting resilient coral species and protect resilient reefs from local stresses so they may better withstand climate impacts. These efforts will also guide commercial and recreational reef-users in identifying climate change vulnerabilities of their industries and help them modify practices to ensure long-term sustainability of their activities.