The Role of Coral Reefs


Coral reef off the coast of Key West

Coral Reefs are some of the most unique habitats on Earth. They are home to about 5,000 species of animal with more being discovered every day. Florida is unique in that it is home to the Florida Reef Tract, the largest reef ecosystem in the continental United States. The Florida Reef Tract lies in relatively shallow water off the southeast coast of Florida and stretches over 350 miles from the Dry Tortugas, north along the Atlantic coast to Martin County. Coral reefs in Florida and around the world are an incredibly vital habitat. Healthy reefs help increase the population of important fish species, contribute to local economies through jobs and tourism, provide food, protect our coasts, and even provide us with valuable medicines. Ecologically, coral reefs provide habitat for many species of fish, invertebrates, and sea turtles. These habitats are exceptionally important to our oceans. Even though they make up less than 1% of the ocean floor, they provide habitat for more than 25% of marine life. When reefs are healthy and functioning properly, they are able to support large populations of many fish species. Many of these species are sought after by both recreational and commercial fishermen.


Tourist sport fishing in Fla. waters

The presence of coral reefs, and the abundance of fish found there, can have dramatic impact on local economies. Fish that live on coral reefs are a significant food source for people all over the world. In the United States, about half of all managed fisheries rely on coral reefs at some point during their life cycle. In southeast Florida alone, recreational reef based fishing generates over $60 million annually. Commercial fishing in Florida is estimated to be a $3 billion industry that supports over 76,000 jobs. Within that industry, over $200 million comes from landing fish for human consumption that rely on the presence of coral reefs. Not only do reefs play an important role in the fishing industry, they are also integral to the success of Florida’s tourism industry.


Scuba diver exploring a coral reef

Florida's tourism industry, which is dependent on fishing and diving, relies on the presence of healthy, beautiful coral reefs. People from all over the world travel to Florida to visit our beaches, go fishing, and dive on our coral reefs. Coral reef tourism in Florida is worth millions of dollars. NOAA estimates the reefs along the coast of Florida help generate $4.4 billion in local sales, $2 billion in local income, and over 70,000 full and part time jobs.


In addition to boosting local economies, reefs play an important role in protecting the Florida coastline. The unique structure and location of reefs helps protect our shores by reducing the strength of waves that crash along the coastline during major storms and hurricanes. These natural buffers for Florida’s shoreline provide protection and strengthen coastal resilience. Research has shown, on average, the presence of coral reefs along Florida helps over 18,000 people annually avoid flooding. Reefs also provide protection against almost $1 billion worth of damage to homes, businesses, and infrastructure annually.


Unfortunately, coral reefs all over the world are under threat from pollution, destructive fishing methods, ocean warming, and more. In many places, reefs have lost diversity and have decreased in size. However, conservationists are working hard to protect and restore these amazing habitats through a variety of techniques.


Part of the Vandenberg artificial reef

The construction of artificial reefs is one of the most common coral restoration practices. This technique involves submerging manmade structures on the ocean floor, providing an area for corals to colonize and grow. These areas not only provide new habitats for corals and fish but can also provide some of the best diving in the world, helping to boost the local economy. Some notable locations around Florida include the USCGC Duane shipwreck off Key Largo, the USNS in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, and the USS Oriskany near Pensacola Pass.


Close up of a coral nursery

Another strategy to repopulate coral reefs comes from sites known as coral nurseries. These nurseries are areas of the ocean, often close to other reefs, where large quantities of coral are grown. While conservationists use many techniques to grow coral in these areas they all have the same goal: raise coral fragments and successfully transplant those corals onto the reef. More information about coral nurseries can be found through NOAA or the Coral Restoration Foundation.


One more approach to coral conservation takes conservationists out of the oceans and into labs where scientists are working to genetically engineer corals to have particular traits. Researchers can engineer and breed corals to better survive warming waters or a particular disease. They will then transplant these corals onto reefs with the hopes they will begin to successfully reproduce.


Coral reefs are treasured habitats in Florida and they provide us with many ecological and economic benefits. From providing food to protecting our coastlines, reefs influence the daily lives of Floridians. As stewards of the ocean, it is crucial we work to conserve and protect our coral reefs. It will take time, effort, and a variety of conservation strategies but protecting coral reefs will help ensure Florida has a prosperous future.



References:


Storlazzi C.D., et al. (2019). Rigorously Valuing the Role of U.S. Coral Reefs in Coastal Hazard Risk Reduction. USGS, 1027, 1 – 42.


FL FWC. (2020). The Economic Impacts of Saltwater Fishing in Florida. My FWC. https://myfwc.com/conservation/value/saltwater-fishing/#:~:text=2019%20Florida%20commercial%20landings%3A,FWRI%20Commercial%20Landings%20Data%202019


NOAA. The Importance of Coral Reefs: Corals Tutorial. NOAA. https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/education/tutorial_corals/coral07_importance.html


Florida Department of Environmental Protection. (2020). Florida’s Coral Reefs. FL DEP. https://floridadep.gov/rcp/rcp/content/floridas-coral-reefs#:~:text=Coral%20reefs%20create%20specialized%20habitats,dynamic%20ecosystem%20with%20tremendous%20biodiversity.


Florida Museum. Importance of Coral Reefs. FL Museum. https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/southflorida/habitats/corals/importance/


To learn more about coral reefs check out these links:

https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/ocean/corals/hope-for-corals.html

https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/feature-story/noaa-develops-new-type-coral-nursery

https://www.coralrestoration.org/restoration#:~:text=CORAL%20TREE%20NURSERIES,each%20fragment%20space%20to%20grow.



Photo Credits:

Image 1: photo © Edb3_16, stock.adobe.com, #241190158

Image 2: photo © Maridav, stock.adobe.com, #236918037

Image 3: photo © Richard Carey, stock.adobe.com, #117795058

Image 4: photo © Pipehorse, stock.adobe.com, #172774690

Image 5: photo © Skyf, stock.adobe.com, #409661731


Author: Andrew Pressly, Education and Engagement Coordinator at FMM

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