Steps away from the warming waters of Florida Bay, marine biologist Emily Becker removed covers from the dozens of water-filled tanks under her watchful eye. Nestled in seawater carefully maintained at about 85 degrees Fahrenheit (29 degrees Celsius) lay hundreds of pieces of coral — some a sickly white from the bleaching that threatens to kill them, others recovered to a healthy bright iodine in color.
As Becker looked over the coral, crews of reef rescue groups arrived in trucks carrying more — brought up by divers in a massive effort aimed at saving the coral from an ocean that is cooking it alive.
“People jumped into action really quickly, as best as they could,” Becker said, wiping sweat from her brow.
Up and down the chain of islands that form the Florida Keys, coral rescue groups and government and academic institutions have mobilized to save the coral from a historic bleaching event that experts say threatens the viability of the third-largest reef tract in the world. They’ve been working long days and weekends in blistering heat for weeks to get as many specimens as they can onto land amid reports of some reef tracts experiencing near total mortality.
In mid-July, water surface temperatures averaged about 91 degrees (33 Celsius) off the lower Florida Keys, well above the average of 85 degrees (29.5 Celsius), according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports.
In this image provide by NOAA, the sun shines on coral showing sign of bleaching at Cheeca Rocks off the coast of Islamorada, Fla., on July 23, 2023. Scientists have seen devastating effects from prolonged hot water surrounding Florida — coral bleaching and some death. (Andrew Ibarra/NOAA via AP)
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The hot water resulted in nearly 100% bleaching along portions of the reef, causing the corals to lose their zooxanthellae, the algae that gives them color and nourishment. If they don’t recover their zooxanthellae, they will ultimately die.
“We’re already seeing not just bleaching, but actual coral death out on the reef because the temperatures were so hot,” said Cynthia Lewis, director of the Keys Marine Lab, a research institute on the island of Long Key, some 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Miami, where rescue groups have already brought more than 1,500 pieces of coral. “And we can’t afford to lose more of our reef.”
A coalition of groups has rushed to the Florida Keys to rescue coral from historic bleaching amid abnormally high temperatures. (Aug. 9)(AP video by Daniel Kozin and Wilfredo Lee)
Coral bleaching occurs naturally when waters warm significantly, including in 2016 in the Keys. But Lewis said the current situation is urgent for coral, which is vital to Florida’s economy, coastal protection and marine life.
The corals “don’t have a lot of time,” she said. “They’re literally sitting, stewing in the water out there in these hot, hot temperatures.”
A string of recent overcast and rainy days helped drop water temperatures slightly. But it will likely be late October or November before the coral samples can be returned to the reef, Lewis said.
What’s at stake?
The Florida Coral Reef is the world’s third-largest, extending about 350 miles (563 kilometers) from the Dry Tortugas in the Gulf of Mexico to St. Lucie Inlet, some 115 miles (185 kilometers) north of Miami.