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New paper published on Florida Keys coral reef construction and erosion

A team of four scientists from St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center and collaborators from NOAA and Florida Institute of Technology published a paper in the journal Limnology and Oceanography. The research was conducted in the Florida Keys including sites in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Dry Tortugas National Park, and Biscayne National Park.

Photo of undercut coral in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
Photo of undercut coral taken at Hen and Chickens Reef Sanctuary Preservation Area, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. (Credit: Ilsa B. Kuffner, USGS. Public domain.)

The loss of thriving coral reefs since the 1970s is well documented throughout the world, as are many of the consequences of the corals’ disappearance. Impacts include loss of marine biodiversity, less productive fisheries, decreased protection of coastlines from storm waves, and reductions in coastal property value. A new paper led by USGS scientists published this week in the journal Limnology and Oceanography, reporting on work conducted in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and two National Parks, highlights one less obvious repercussion of live-coral loss: erosion of the reefs’ physical structure. The natural process of reef erosion is not a problem for reefs that have enough live, healthy corals to sustain them. But for reefs that have lost a lot of coral, large expanses of the reef lay vulnerable to the scraping of fish, and to colonization by sponges and microbes that degrade the reef from the inside out. One reef where erosion was measured in this study revealed an average loss of 5.5 mm (nearly 1/4 inch) per year in reef height over the past 17 years. This research can help predict how long reefs that are in a state of decline will continue delivering the services that humans enjoy. The paper also points out something positive, though. The recent focus by reef managers on restoring coral populations using live-coral planting could have an unappreciated benefit. Not only does replacing live corals rehabilitate fish habitat, restore biodiversity, and delight tourists, the act of planting live corals can also reform the protective lining that covers the thousands-years-old reef framework, making it less available to the agents that break it down.

The full citation for the article is: 

Kuffner, I.B., Toth, L.T., Hudson, J.H., Goodwin, W.B., Stathakopoulos, A., Bartlett, L.A. and Whitcher, E.M., 2019, Improving estimates of coral reef construction and erosion with in situ measurements. Limnololgy and Oceanography, doi:10.1002/lno.11184.


Read what else is new at the St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center.


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