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Dispatch from the reef: survey reveal cold-kill damage to corals.

Fish, turtles, seagrass and manatees weren't the only ones to take hits during this past winter's stretch of cold. One of the key elements of the infrastructure of Florida fishing, the coral reef, suffered damage from the extended stretch of frigid air that descended from the north in January.

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"Most people knew that the cold weather would result in some impacts, but the thing we didn't anticipate was how cold it would get on the reef," said Erich Bartels, Staff Scientist and Program Manager at Mote Marine's Tropical Research Lab on Summerland Key. "During the harshest cold, we were diving on the reef, monitoring staghorn corals as part of our stimulus-funded research with the Nature Conservancy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the water was the coldest I've ever dove on the reef, 62 degrees on the bottom. We noticed significant impacts to the staghorn corals on the reef, as well as to our nursery staghorn corals. We continued to look around in nearshore and offshore waters, and as soon as we started to realize that something significant was going on we notified our partners."

Mote Marine Laboratory partners with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the Nature Conservancy, among other groups, in the Florida Reef Resilience Program (FRRP), and Bartel's notice helped prompt the Nature Conservancy to organize a rapid Disturbance Response Monitoring effort--a survey across South Florida with many scientific partners to assess cold kill damage to a variety of coral species and reef colonies. Surveys were conducted in January and February, and their results indicated that the inshore and midchannel reefs from Biscayne Bay to Summerland Key were hardest hit.

"The good news is," Bartels says, "that the outermost reef tract, places like Looe Key, Big Pine Shoals, that whole region, appears to be largely unaffected. Those are the most popular among divers and anglers.

"We've been learning a lot about the resilience of some of these organisms," Bartel explained. "We're trying to understand what species and genetic strains may be more able to adapt to extreme conditions, and that information may have implications for long term management of reef resources and reef restoration projects. The information scientists have collected this time around has far exceeded what experts collected during the last severe cold spell, in 1977, and it's an amazing amount of knowledge. There's no way to protect those corals from extreme cold, but we will be able to learn a lot from this about how corals cope with stress."

As far as the average person is concerned, corals are about the least sexy organisms out there, Bartel says, but they're incredibly vital to healthy fish stocks. "Corals grow slowly, and without them, you don't have reefs being built, so as old reefs are degraded, you're going to lose the habitat that the fish depend on. You can't have healthy fish populations without a healthy reef."

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Title Annotation:On the Conservation Front
Author:Conway, David
Publication:Florida Sportsman
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2010
Words:486
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