Forests of rare coral discovered off South Florida
By David Fleshler
December 29 2014
A surprise discovery along the South Florida coast has revealed dense thickets of a species of coral thought to be disappearing from the region’s reefs.
More than 38 acres of staghorn coral has been found in patches on the reefs from northern Miami-Dade to northern Broward counties, in what scientists call a rare piece of good news for a species that has sustained severe declines, largely due to disease.
“This is a huge win for Florida’s corals,” said Joanna Walczak, southeast regional administrator for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection‘s Florida coastal office.
Staghorn coral, which extends delicate branches up from the ocean floor, is among the most important coral species for its ability to build reefs, creating habitat for fish and other marine creatures and providing a natural wave-break that protects the coast.
The dense patches of the federally protected coral, discovered through dives and the analysis of aerial surveys, run from the area off Golden Beach through Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. Although many of the coral concentrations lie far from shore, some are accessible to divers.
A scientist from Nova Southeastern University’s Oceanographic Center found the coral while doing a survey for the environmental agency, which wanted a better map of shallow reef system.
“This was an unexpected result of a project that was intended to improve our knowledge of the types and locations of near-shore reef habitats in southeast Florida,” said Brian Walker, research scientist at Nova’s National Coral Reef Institute, who conducted the study.
The northern limit for the species is roughly around Boca Raton, but in the past, it was densest in the Florida Keys. The species has been disappearing there, however, battered by a variety of problems, including coral bleaching and white-band disease.
Global warming contributed to the decline, with higher water temperatures touching off more frequent incidents of bleaching. That occurs when corals expel the algae on which they depend for energy, making them more vulnerable to disease, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Ironically, that same warming may have made the water temperatures of Miami-Dade and Broward counties more hospitable for the species.
“Some have speculated that climate change might have contributed,” Walker said.
The department of environmental protection wanted a better map of the coral’s locations to improve the management of beach-widening, coastal development and other activities that could harm corals, as well as improve responses to incidents such as oil spills and illegal boat anchoring.
Along the Fort Lauderdale coast, a patch was found about 325 yards off Northeast 18th Street, another about 430 yards off Vista Park and one about 325 yards off the north end of the Bahia Mar Fort Lauderdale Beach Hotel, where A1A splits. Another patch stands about 540 yards off the center of John U. Lloyd Beach State Park. It is illegal to touch the coral.
When he dove the sites, Walker saw a variety of marine creatures swimming and creeping around the corals. He saw reef croakers, fireworms and sea hares (a type of mollusk named for two earlike appendages). He saw threespot damselfish, which cultivate algae gardens on the corals by weeding out the algae species they don’t plan to eat.
Walczak, of the environmental protection department, said her office has begun putting more effort into studying the reefs north of Biscayne National Park, and “it amazes me that we’re still finding new and exciting discoveries.”