Florida reef res­cuers keep pace with cli­mate change

South Florida Times - - BUSINESS - Marine bi­ol­o­gist Diego Lir­man By JENNY STALETOVICH

The Mi­ami Her­ald

MI­AMI - Ten years ago, when sci­en­tists in South Florida be­gan a mas­sive res­cue ef­fort to re­build the na­tion's only in­shore reef, re­plant­ing nurs­ery-grown staghorn co­ral with a gar­den­ing tech­nique per­fected in the Pa­cific seemed like an easy so­lu­tion.

“You can go to Home De­pot to get ev­ery­thing you need,” said Univer­sity of Mi­ami marine bi­ol­o­gist Diego Lir­man. “And you don't need to pay for this. Peo­ple pay us to come out.”

From Key West to Fort Laud­erdale, vol­un­teers and sci­en­tists planted thou­sands of staghorns in reef res­cues. More than 90 per­cent of Lir­man's corals sur­vived _ about 10 per­cent more than ex­pected _ sig­nal­ing a rous­ing suc­cess. The work helped shift reef restora­tion from uglier, more costly en­gi­neered ar­ti­fi­cial reefs cre­ated with scut­tled ships, which are also more sus­cep­ti­ble to in­va­sive species and vul­ner­a­ble to sea rise. Labs ex­panded to meet the grow­ing de­mand, added more kinds and per­fected tech­niques.

Then came back-to-back bleach­ing events that started in 2014. In 2015, more than half of Lir­man's trans­planted staghorns died. Sud­denly, the reef gar­den­ers were faced with a daunt­ing new ob­sta­cle: cli­mate change.

With ocean tem­per­a­tures ris­ing in the last cen­tury, and con­sis­tently higher than ever be­fore over the last three decades, sci­en­tists re­al­ized re­plant­ing nurs­ery-grown ver­sions of wild co­ral would not be enough. They would need to weed out the weak co­ral, find a way to make the gar­den­grown va­ri­ety more re­silient to both tem­per­a­ture and ris­ing acid­ity linked to more car­bon in the at­mos­phere, and work faster. Much faster. Wel­come to Res­cue a Reef 2.0. What started as a ci­ti­zen sci­ence pro­ject to re­build the reef is now an all-hands-on­deck dash to not only re­plant but de­velop a crop of tough new co­ral with cut­tingedge sci­ence.

In April, the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion signed off on a twoyear pro­ject with UM to re­build the reef, and one of South Florida's eco­nomic en­gines, with 10,000 corals grown in Lir­man's lab. Mote Marine Lab­o­ra­tory opened a new 19,000-square-foot, $7 mil­lion lab on Sum­mer­land Key. And in Au­gust, An­drew Baker, another UM co­ral ex­pert work­ing with Lir­man, will be­gin repli­cat­ing a hard­en­ing method de­vel­oped in his lab. Baker was also se­lected as the new Frost sci­ence mu­seum's first in­ven­tor-in-res­i­dence and will dis­play the on­go­ing ef­forts in a new public lab at the down­town mu­seum.

“We've done it in the lab,” Baker said. “Now we need to see if we can do it in the real world and scale it up.”

Scale was in fact one of the dilem­mas that led to the early ad­vances in co­ral gar­den­ing. When he started work­ing with the Na­ture Con­ser­vancy ten years ago, Lir­man's goal was to save the staghorn co­ral thick­ets that in just 30 years had largely dis­ap­peared. Pol­lu­tion, boat traf­fic and over-fish- ing had wiped out many that grew along the coast. Hardly any elkhorn corals, another once-com­mon va­ri­ety, were left. Both, which are fed­er­ally listed as en­dan­gered, are branch­ing co­ral that pro­vide habi­tat for wildlife and helped build more reef vol­ume. In low-ly­ing South Florida and across the Caribbean, that can be crit­i­cally im­por­tant.

Reefs not only help break-up fierce hur­ri­cane waves but, more im­por­tantly, sub­due ev­ery­day waves that erode beaches, which has cost tax­pay­ers mil­lions in South Florida. Last year, the U.S. Army Corps of En­gi­neers spent $11.9 mil­lion just to shore up beaches in Mi­ami-Dade County. It spent $7.1 mil­lion in Broward in 2013.

But Lir­man needed to find a way to grow enough staghorns with­out poach­ing too much from the lit­tle that was left. So he col­lected 30 sam­ples, enough for di­ver­sity. As dis­ease and bleach­ing oc­curred, he was able to look more closely at the geno­types that fared bet­ter and fo­cus on those.

“My nurs­ery is now re­plant­ing close to 5,000 corals each year on 15 to 20 sites in Mi­ami-Dade,” he said, which amounts to “eco­log­i­cally rel­e­vant scales.”

So many divers wanted to par­tic­i­pate that the pro­ject drew a months-long wait­ing list. Based on UM's pop­u­lar shark out­reach, the ef­fort for the last two years has taken vol­un­teer divers on res­cue mis­sions that start at one of four off­shore nurs­eries. Last month, a team of 10 divers led by re­search as­so­ci­ate Dal­ton Hes­ley braved pour­ing rain to visit a sandy patch of ocean floor off Key Bis­cayne where PVC pipes are screwed to­gether like plas­tic Christ­mas trees, with the branches dan­gling like or­na­ments.

Af­ter clean­ing bar­na­cles and al­gae from the pipes and clip­ping branches, the team headed to a nearby reef to re­plant the corals by zip-ty­ing them to nails ham­mered into the reef. The pruned corals also re­grow faster, Hes­ley said, not un­like a rose bush.

Lyanne Abreu, an en­vi­ron­men­tal sciences teacher at TERRA, a Mi­ami-Dade sci­ence mag­net high school, had been try­ing to get on a dive for a year. En­rique Mercado, a fi­nan­cial ad­viser, waited five months for two open­ings so he could take his son.

“I've seen what we've done over 30 years. The kind of world we have now is nowhere near what I grew up with,” he said. “I have to go to un­touched ar­eas now to show him what I used to see right off my beach.”

While the dives gained pop­u­lar­ity, Lir­man knows the ef­fort is just a Band-Aid. Since the early 1900s, the sur­face of the ocean, where most sea life lives, has risen on av­er­age 0.13 F each decade, ac­cord­ing to the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency. Over the next cen­tury, ocean tem­per­a­tures are ex­pected to rise 3.6 F, which could mean big trou­ble for co­ral.

Tiny co­ral shel­ter al­gae in their anemone­like ten­ta­cles. The al­gae in re­turn pro­vide food. But when tem­per­a­tures get too hot or too cold, co­ral spit out the al­gae and can die. A 2005 bleach­ing, the worst on record in the At­lantic basin, wiped out half the U.S. co­ral reefs in the Caribbean. In 2010, a South Florida cold snap killed up to 39


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