Mote Preps Volunteers For BleachWatch

Science

BY PHILIP LEDERER SRQ DAILY FRIDAY WEEKEND EDITION FRIDAY JUN 10, 2016

With instances of coral bleaching rising worldwide, including a record-breaking event affecting Australia’s Great Barrier Reef last month, Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium has again put out the call for volunteers for the annual Florida Keys BleachWatch program, conducted in partnership with The Nature Conservancy’s Florida Reef Resilience Program. Now in its eleventh year, the program tracks instances of coral bleaching through waters of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (home to the largest coral reef system along the continental US) to better understand the causes, effects and spread of this phenomenon.

A natural reaction from the coral animal, bleaching occurs when the animal is stressed and expels the symbiotic algae living in its polyps, exposing the bone-white "skeleton" and mimicking a bleaching effect. More than just an aesthetic concern, the breakdown of this symbiosis affects the coral’s ability to extract nutrients from the surrounding water and significantly weakens the animal. "This opens the door for disease," said BleachWatch Coordinator and Mote Marine Senior Biologist Cory Walter, "and if they don’t regain that algae, they’re not going to survive."

Common stressors include pollution, changes in water salinity or, in this case, rising water temperatures. "This thermal stress over a period of time really stresses the coral out," said Walter. If the problem remains unchecked, the fear is mass bleaching events such as the one which struck the Great Barrier Reef just weeks ago. "It’s a visual for climate change," said Walter. "It’s reef-wide and all throughout the Florida Keys for sure."

Through the month of June and beginning this coming Monday, Mote scientists will host a trio of training sessions down in the Florida Keys, preparing volunteers to act as a crowd-sourced data collection machine, keeping tabs on coral health as they go about their normal nautical activities and sending reports back to BleachWatch for collation. With the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration predicting escalating bleaching in late August, Walter hopes the teams will be prepared to not only document the phenomenon but also provide early warning to Sanctuary staff, possibly giving a chance to intervene. "It’s having eyes on the water," said Walter. "There’s not a lot of staff and we can’t get out every day." Off to a good start, in the two weeks since the project began this year, volunteers have already submitted 20 reports, she said.

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