All over the world, oceans are heating up, killing coral. Things like heat-induced bleaching are major reasons coral reef has not only stopped growing but has started to erode. The third-largest reef appears to be disappearing more by the day because of stressors in the environment (more on this later).
What Are Coral Reefs Exactly?
Large underwater structures made of coral are called coral reefs. Healthy coral reef systems are some of the most valuable structures in the world. They provide habitats, contribute to new medicines, and more. Though coral reefs only cover less than one-tenth of one percent of the ocean floor, they have the most diverse marine ecosystems.
One of the most important aspects of coral reefs is that they are major sources of food. Over one billion people rely on food provided from coral reefs, which is why it is important to protect them now more than ever.
Without reefs to nurture marine ecosystems, people who need fish to eat will suffer. The people who sell fish will be jobless, and the world economy will be in disarray.
So Why Are Florida's Coral Reefs Suffering?
Coral reefs are affected by many individual factors, the main ones being:
- Global warming
- Coral bleaching
- Destructive fishing
However, the combination of all three is especially lethal to reef systems. Here is a closer look at several factors that have led to Florida's coral reef systems dying:
Global warming is the gradual increase of the temperature of the earth's atmosphere. Though the world thinks they do not have to worry about global warming, it is very deadly for the ecosystem.
Air pollutants, greenhouse gases, and carbon dioxide get into the atmosphere and absorb both solar radiation and sunlight. This is what causes temperatures to rise over time, known as global warming.
The past 20 years have been the hottest on record, which is bad news for the ocean's coral reefs. These systems are very sensitive and susceptible to temperature changes.
These extremely high, abnormal temperatures have caused coral bleaching, which greatly damages reef systems. Since most corals only have a narrow acceptable temperature range, it is easy for them to become stressed.
Coral bleaching occurs when corals are highly stressed, mostly due to the warmer waters. Once corals have lost the algae on them, they become white and can no longer be used effectively. Coral reef systems can survive one bleaching event, but repeated events will always lead to their death.
Once temperatures have risen high enough, reef systems will vanish entirely.
Carbon pollution can be absorbed from the atmosphere, which is another major source of deteriorating coral reefs. Florida has coral reefs that are exposed to higher levels of carbon dioxide because of the surrounding societies. If carbon pollution and thermal stress continue, the ocean's pH will decline and continue to decline.
Global warming can cause a rise in sea level, which in turn leads to sedimentation runoff. This runoff can smother and kill coral reef systems. Heavy storms also can destroy coral reefs below the ocean surface.
All of these events can become more frequent due to global warming. To recover, the world's coral reefs need a streak of normal temperatures, which does not look possible without major changes everywhere.
Sea Level Rise
One of the most important functionalities of coral reef systems is their ability to act as breakwaters. This prevents storms from destroying infrastructures that are human-built and shorelines. Unfortunately, as present coral populations are being killed, this reduces their ability to create a bigger reef system. This ability might even be diminished to the point that coral reef systems cannot keep up with the sea level rise.
Sea level rises can be attributed mostly to global warming. Since water expands when it is warm, it expands dramatically when global warming starts to take effect. Global warming also causes important sheets of ice and glaciers to melt, another way of causing big changes in sea level. While sea levels rising may seem like a good thing, it is actually detrimental to fish, plants, and birds that live within the waters. Corals are especially affected by the sea level rise.
One of the unique traits of corals is that they can create rocks from seawater. Reef systems grow larger each year by adding a layer of calcium carbonate to their surfaces. However, if the reef is not large enough to keep adding onto itself once the sea level starts to rise, erosion occurs. Though coral reefs can grow bigger and stronger, global warming can move too quickly for reefs to adapt to their new environment.
Overfishing and Destructive Fishing
Overfishing is another major problem for the livelihood of Florida coral reef systems. Poisons and explosives were used to catch fish and export them to countries like China and Singapore.
Cyanide has killed ecosystems living on coral reefs, and dynamite has blown up the corals themselves. Additionally, all the fishing gear dragged across the ocean floor has directly contributed to the breakdown of precious corals.
Human activities are widely regarded as one of the biggest causes of the destruction of coral reef systems.
Blast fishing is commonly used in shallower parts of coral reefs, which is when fishermen use dynamite to stun or kill fish. Corals are almost always left in tiny pieces after this harmful activity is done. The worst part about blast fishing is that once corals or destroyed, it is virtually impossible for them to recover since large parts of the reef are blown up. Fishermen who do this destroys large parts of their own community and ecosystem to sell fish and seafood.
Another popular fishing method that can be extremely destructive to coral reefs involves cyanide. This chemical can capture fish while still alive to be used at aquarium fish markets or other food markets.
Cyanide is sprayed or even dumped onto reefs, which is one of the most destructive ways to kill Florida coral reef systems. Additionally, it is very common for fishermen to break corals when trying to catch the stunned fish. However, this method is not foolproof since as many as half of the fish die before they can be used for their intended purpose.
Destructive Fishing Gear
Beach seines and gill nets are examples of fishing gear that have caused major damage to coral reef ecosystems. They are used by dragging them along the ocean floor and picking up fish, but they actually end up killing far more than their intended targets.
Corals die instantly when swept up by this fishing gear, causing major damage to reef systems. To make matters worse, some fishers even leave their nets in their ocean. These nets continue to “ghost-fish” once they are abandoned. Ghost-fishing causes corals to be smothered and other innocent fish to be killed even years after the nets are left there.
Every destructive fishing method mentioned above is completely unsustainable for the ecosystem. This is because cyanide, explosives, and gill nets never target one fish species and always leave destruction in their path. Once the damage has been done to the coral reef systems, fish populations and nearby fishers' livelihoods are negatively affected.
Plastic and Other Pollution
It is a well-known fact that millions of plastic bottles and other plastic products end up in the oceans every year. This is extremely dangerous to the marine ecosystems since grocery bags and plastic bottles never break down or go away.
Plastic waste is not only contaminating Florida coral reefs, but other systems in Australia, Thailand, and Indonesia as well. Plastic is so harmful because it clings to corals and kills wherever it touches. When a coral is touched by plastic, there is up to a 90 percent chance that the coral will become diseased.
There are harmful microorganisms all over the ocean and near coral reef systems. Once the coral is abraded, these dangers are invited into the corals and spread infections throughout the systems. Also, plastic waste can prevent much-needed sunlight from reaching reef systems.
The pollution problem is so out of control that millions of plastic products can be found lingering on Florida's coral reefs and worldwide. Different food wrappers, plastic bags, and diapers can all carry different dangerous pollutants that infect valuable reefs.
How Can Florida's Coral Reefs Be Protected?
There is no doubt that humans cause damage to Florida coral reefs. This is why everyone should be making choices to conserve water, recycle, and protect corals whenever they can. Here are some simple ways to protect Florida coral reefs:
- Recycle whenever possible.Recycling cups and other waste whenever possible will prevent plastic and other unnecessary waste from ending up in the oceans.
- Conserve water.By conserving water, less wastewater will eventually make its way back to the ocean, consequently, killing off coral reef systems.
- Fish responsibly. When fishing, make sure the gear is not destructive to the surrounding ecosystems.
Coral reef systems are some of the most valuable ecosystems on the planet and should be treated as such. Everyone can prevent further damage to them by conserving and educating others as much as possible.