Miami, Fla. (June 22, 2015) – Project Baseline, a worldwide conservation initiative supported by Global Underwater Explorers, put scientists underwater in a submersible alongside scuba divers this past week to document the destruction of Florida’s coral reefs. Project Baseline deployed its research vessel Baseline Explorer to the reefs off of south Florida and the Keys from June 10 to June 17 as part of a collaborative effort with Dr. Brian Lapointe of the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute (HBOI) at Florida Atlantic University.
The purpose of this project was to document the extent of destruction to Florida’s coral reefs that has occurred over the past 2-3 decades. Divers observed very little living coral remaining on the prominent reefs between Hollywood and Key West, which are now predominantly covered by algae and sponges. Nine dives were conducted in waters up to 100 feet between Hollywood and Key West. Divers collected video transects documenting the state of the coral reefs at 10-20 foot depth increments, the results of which will be published online and shared with scientists.
The team also collected numerous samples of algae that will be analyzed in Dr. Lapointe’s lab at HBOI for nitrogen isotopes to pinpoint the source of nutrients allowing the algae to thrive at the expense of the coral reefs and the animals that live on and around them. Dr. Lapointe’s work studying the algae on these reefs spans more than 2 decades and has revealed that the explosion of algae and associated demise of the corals is due primarily to the persistent release of very high nutrient-laden water into the nearshore environment arising from wastewater disposal and agricultural runoff into Florida Bay.
The team concluded their work together on a reef in 70 feet of water 2 miles offshore from Hollywood, where Dr. Lapointe and Dr. Todd Kincaid of Project Baseline were taken to the wastewater outfall pipe aboard Project Baseline submersibles to view and discuss the impacts of wastewater discharge firsthand. “The problem has gotten so bad now, in South Florida, the Florida Keys now has less coral cover – living coral – than any reefs in the entire Caribbean region, less than 5 percent,” said Dr. Lapointe. That small amount is in danger of disappearing altogether if the nutrient loading persists. Dr. Lapointe emphasized the need for the public to take an interest in the health of Florida’s reefs. “We see a lot of denial on the [part of the] resource managers that sewage is a problem for coral reefs, turbidity from dredge and fill operations…there are ways to do a lot of these things using new technologies that can both solve the problem, and they’ll be good for the economy.”