Mote, Netflix focus on coral health

Chasing Coral cast member Zack Rago visited Mote’s underwater coral nursery just off of Summerland Key. His response… “Mote’s underwater coral nursery is the best I have ever seen.”

Earlier this month Netflix released “Chasing Coral,” a documentary detailing the detrimental effects of coral bleaching on the world’s oceans.

The film provides an introduction to coral reefs — the oceans’ “rainforests” — and some major challenges they face around the world. In particular, the filmmakers focus on coral bleaching and death caused by increased water temperatures, which are driven in large part by human activities adding carbon dioxide to Earth’s atmosphere.

Bleaching occurs when a stressed coral loses the beneficial algae in its tissues. The symbiotic (win-win) relationship between the coral and algae is critical for the coral’s survival. Without these special algae, the coral loses color and ultimately dies if conditions do not improve.

Bleaching is one excellent focus for a documentary, as it is one of the most visible and prevalent challenges that coral reef scientists, resource managers and conservationists are working to understand and address.

At the same time, it’s important to note that bleaching doesn’t happen alone. Corals face multiple stressors at once.

Coral diseases are a major concern, and some diseases increase in corals already stressed by warmer water temperatures. Beyond increasing temperatures, excess carbon dioxide can also enter the ocean and cause a chemical change called ocean acidification (OA). OA can weaken the hard, calcium carbonate structures of multiple marine animals. In corals, it could mean the dissolution and loss of their hard skeletons. Think of osteoporosis in human bones.

In future documentaries of this nature, we encourage coverage of potential solutions to the challenges facing reefs, particularly science-based efforts to restore coral reefs. Mote Marine Laboratory and our partners are implementing some of the largest reef restoration efforts to date, and our scientists are working to find and selectively restore genetic varieties of coral that are resilient to environmental changes


Potential effects of human-related climate change

Earth’s climate has always experienced natural changes, and in the latest part of our planet’s history, humans have contributed notably to climate change, particularly through emissions of carbon dioxide. The current rate of temperature increase is particularly concerning, as it is happening faster than evolution, coral migration, and other possible compensatory mechanisms. Climate change has significantly affected reefs, with widespread coral death around the world.

If corals go extinct, other marine habitat types such as macro-algae or algal-bacteria slime or sponges may replace them. It is not for science to decide that one ecosystem is “bad” and another is “good,” nor that by extension climate change impacts that force corals into extinction are “harmful.” What is certain is that if coral reefs go extinct, we lose our “rainforests of the sea,” we lose an enormous level of marine biodiversity, and the State of Florida alone will lose over 70,000 jobs and the foundation of a $8.5 billion annual economy. Science can inform society of the objective facts surrounding impacts to our oceans from climate change, but society must decide how this “harm” will be considered in the diverse balance of desires for quality of life and the economic vitality of our nation and the world.


What are Mote scientists doing to help coral reefs?

Mote Marine Laboratory’s campus on Summerland Key, Florida, is a hotbed of collaborative marine science, education and conservation designed to address grand challenges facing our oceans – emphasizing coral reefs.

In May 2017, Mote opened its new Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research and Restoration (IC2R3) at its existing Summerland Key campus. This major base of operations represents a launching platform for global coral reef restoration in our lifetimes.

There, Mote scientists lead groundbreaking studies of coral disease, climate change (warming water temperatures and ocean acidification), and coral resilience needed for restoration.They are growing and outplanting thousands of fragments of staghorn coral, a threatened branching coral, and reef-building species of brain, boulder and star corals, while studying their resilience to environmental change so we can restore strains most likely to survive.

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