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Mini-sub hunts for what’s left of coral reef


Most people think of the Keys when they think of Florida coral reefs, those colorful underwater worlds teeming with an almost magical array of life.

But just 14 miles off of Vero’s beaches, there are “stunning white ivory tree corals” that serve as habitat for fish that mature in the Indian River Lagoon and end up in local restaurants and markets, according to Harbor Branch assistant research professor Joshua Voss.

“Vero Beach is more intimately tied to the coastal ecology of southeast Florida than perhaps many people who live here realize,” says Voss, who led a three-day coral research expedition off the Treasure Coast in June.

The branching ivory coral, known as Oculina varicose, forms part of the 200-mile-long Oculina Reef that stunned the marine science world when it was discovered by Harbor Branch researchers in Johnson-Link submersibles in the 1970s. The coral exists nowhere else in the world except off of Florida’s east coast.

 “All the fish that come up into Vero are connected to the populations that are living on the reefs offshore and to the south of us,” Voss added.

More than a thousand lineal miles of coral reefs surround the entire Florida peninsula, according to Voss, extending from Jacksonville down to Miami and around the Keys and circling back up the west coast. In many places, this productive, protective ring is doubled, with one reef relatively near the shore while a second line runs parallel further out in much deeper water.

Besides their otherworldly beauty and intrinsic value as living things, Voss says Florida’s reefs are “huge economic drivers in terms of tourism, as well as commercial and recreational fishing. When people think of U.S. coral reefs, they think of going to the Florida Keys. And so to the extent we want to maintain those tourism revenues and that image of Florida, which also drives property values, coral reefs are important.”

Coral reefs have yielded an extensive library of antibacterial and antiviral compounds that scientists at Harbor Branch and elsewhere are busily synthesizing and turning into medicines, and the reefs help protect Florida’s coast from hurricane damage.

“The physical structure of the reef itself dissipates a lot of wave action that occurs during strong storm events ... The presence of those reefs is what allowed many of these homes and businesses to survive storms,” Voss says.

All those benefits are at risk, however, as a wide range of what Voss calls “stressors” continue to eat away at Florida’s coral reefs. Global warming, land-based pollution, new coral diseases and damage done by boats and fishermen, especially by shrimp trawlers that drag heavy nets over the reefs, fracturing coral, have destroyed somewhere between 30 and 80 percent of the reefs.

That point was driven home during the recent expedition off the St. Lucie Inlet, a joint project of Harbor Branch and Project Baseline, a nonprofit working worldwide to discover and document coral reefs as a step to saving them.

The scientists were looking for sections of the Oculina Reef last explored more than 30 years ago in the early 1980s by Harbor Branch Research Professor John Reed. Reed wrote in 2005 that in those early days there were “thickets of ... living coral” topping 100-foot-high reefs “teeming with fish.”

Last month, Voss and the intrepid underwater explorers from Project Baseline found nothing but coral rubble, the dead bones of a once thriving ecosystem.

They searched for three days in 200- to 300-foot deep water seven miles off of South Hutchinson Island, operating off of a shiny new research ship called Baseline Explorer and using a James Bond-ish Triton submersible.

The mini-submarine, manufactured in Vero Beach, had gold-painted tanks and a central Plexiglas bubble that made Voss and Project Baseline founder Robert Carmichael look a little bit like Bond villains once they were inside, smiling out through the glass while slowly sinking beneath the waves.

The sub was escorted by a three-man technical dive team led by Baseline co-founder Dr. Todd Kincaid, a hydrogeologist and entrepreneur who donates his time and expertise to Baseline’s missions, driven by a passion for protecting the marine environment.

That passion was demonstrated when he and the other divers wiggled into multilayered wet suits and strapped on a Mars mission’s worth of tanks and gear and descended through what Voss calls “a screaming four-knot current” to a cold, dangerous world 300 feet down where the pressure on their bodies was 10 times that on the surface.

“When I learned how to dive in the Keys, almost the entire coral reef was alive,” Kincaid says. “In the last 15 years, we’ve lost 60 percent of the living coral reef. Yet, when people dive in Florida for the first time they still think it’s beautiful.

“That ‘baseline’ for environmental quality is shifting. It will continue to shift until we can present the public with a picture that clearly demonstrates what a pristine reef looked like 25 or 50 years ago contrasted with a picture that shows the condition the reefs are in today.”

Voss says Baseline’s research objectives align perfectly with his mission to “discover, characterize, and protect coral reef ecosystems.”

Baseline provided the 146-foot-long, blue and white research ship, the 007 submersible and the technical dive team for the June expedition, with Voss bringing his expertise and team of graduate student researchers, along with Harbor Branch’s land-based laboratory capabilities.

He says Baseline’s participation “is exceptionally important” to his research efforts. “Harbor branch has had an outstanding reputation as a leader in deep sea research and submersible work. Our partnership with Project Baseline is allowing us to regain some of those capabilities and research objectives.”

That research collaboration is one hopeful sign for Florida’s endangered reefs, and there are others.

In 1984, Harbor Branch’s research led to federal protection for the Oculina Reef between Fort Pierce and Cape Canaveral. The protected area in which bottom trawling is banned was extended to Jacksonvile in 2000, which gives what’s left of the reef a fighting chance – though shrimp boats sometimes defy the ban and fish in restricted areas.

Coral restoration is underway in the Keys and Tampa Bay, with researchers figuring out to grow and transplant staghorn coral to reinvigorate dead or damaged reefs.

Closer to home, Voss and the Baseline divers found spiral coral, sponges and even some grouper in the area they searced in June, showing that, even if the Oculina coral has been destroyed, the area is still a viable fish habitat.

And Voss has not givien up on finding John Reed’s long-lost stands of Oculina varicosa.

“We saw some evidence of damage by the fact that we found Oculina rubble,” Voss says. “But I think there is still a possibility there could be intact Oculina populations in that location.”

He plans to go back and continue the deep-water search at the end of July.

Even if Oculina varicosa is gone off the shores of South Hutchinson Island, Voss hopes that with continued research and public support Florida’s reefs can be protected and even restored.

“Numerous cases in conservation biology have taught us that if we can figure out a way to remove stressors from a system, nature is remarkably resilient and able to restructure that ecosystem effectively,” he says.