What's Killing Florida's Coral Reefs?

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Stephen Frink / Corbis

A coral reef in South Florida.

The disaster in south Florida is invisible from above water but the damage is horrific. Hundreds of yards of sensitive coral reefs, part of the largest such ecosystem in the United States, have been sliced through by boats in two incidents over the last month. Indeed, because of choppy conditions, the assessment of the damage at one site, a mile offshore from the famed Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, was not possible until this week. It is now believed that a cable line from a tug boat, or possibly lobster traps, cut a swath estimated at about 200 yards long and 70 feet wide. A diver with the state's fish and wildlife conservation commission who surveyed the area Tuesday called it "as bad as it's been portrayed. It's extensive."

One diver who scoped the 50-foot-deep waters off Palm Beach before the state could examine the damage called it the worst he's ever seen from a single incident. Added Ed Tichenor, director of Palm Beach County Reef Rescue, who reported the damage to state agencies: "As far as I've been diving here, I haven't heard of a similar incident of this magnitude." The other damaged reef is located off a state park just south of Port Everglades. There, sponges have been sliced, and soft and hard corals cut and turned over. (See pictures of imperiled coral reefs here.)

State crews will monitor the Breakers reef, a popular diving spot, next week, weather-permitting, in order to curtail private divers from entering the damaged area and flipping and moving corals. Those divers may believe they are doing good but such movement may actually further damage the reef and inhibit government restoration efforts. Sponges should be left to recover alone; but damaged brain, maze, great star and other hard corals will have to be cemented in placed at their old location. Such hard corals are so sensitive and take decades to grow back, at a rate of a few centimeters a year.

Aside from providing homes for fish life and plants, coral reefs also produce billions of dollars in related eco-tourism and thousands of jobs in South Florida. They are also a buffer for beach erosion, a problem exacerbated by each new oceanside high-rise condo, as well as the storms and hurricanes that have battered Florida over the last four years. A joint federal and state study released in 2001 showed the reef-related economy — including money spent by eco-tourists for diving, chartering boats and the like — resulted in a $4 billion industry and more than 35,000 jobs during a 12-month period. (See pictures of UNESCO's eight latest wonders of the natural world, including reefs in New Caledonia.)

Nevertheless, the reefs are declining because of human activity. A 2008 report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concluded that half of the U.S. reef ecosystem is in poor or fair condition and it foresees no improvement in the future. "Reefs all over the world and in the U.S. are suffering," says Dr. Richard Dodge, dean of Nova Southeastern University's Oceanographic Center in Dania Beach, Fla. Vessel-related damage continues to be a big problem, and the two latest incidents are just "one more nail in the coffin."

What makes the latest damage to the reefs so heartbreaking is that the condition of south Florida's reef ecosystem seemed to be improving this year, if ever so slightly. The state seemed to be doing its share to safeguard the natural treasure. Lawmakers, for example, agreed to a long-term timeline to prohibit water utilities from dumping partially-treated sewage into the ocean. Federal and state agencies also finally moved a commercial ship anchorage that had caused years of sustained reef damage off Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale.

It wasn't until the last decade or two that more attention was given to these forests of the sea. Vessel groundings, coastal construction, pollution and climate change have all severely affected and continue to have a detrimental impact on sea life around the world, with more and more coral threatened with extinction. In 2006, the staghorn and elkhorn corals, prevalent along South Florida waters, were listed as threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act (Staghorn coral is present in the Breakers reef, but it is not believed to have been damaged this time around).

Last week, heftier federally regulated fines were enacted for vessels that damage coral reefs. Florida's Department of Environmental Protection is investigating an 80-foot dive boat called the Nekton that ran aground and caused the reef damage in Broward County, sending a crew out on Tuesday for an assessment. "We have a lot of broken corals there that need to be removed," said Chantal Collier, manager of the state's Coral Reef Conservation Program. Meanwhile, the non-profit volunteer group Palm Beach County Reef Rescue on Tuesday announced a $2,500 reward for any information leading to the culprits who caused the latest damage in the Breakers.

The people who caused damage might never be found. "In this case, it's a big ocean and something passed through without anyone noticing what happened," says Erin McDevitt, a habitat coordinator with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and one of four divers who assessed the underwater damage off Palm Beach on Tuesday. Unless someone comes forward, finding the culprit is extremely difficult. "It's a needle in a haystack."