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Few realize that hardbottom reefs lay close to shore just off Humiston Park

STORY BY SUE COCKING (Week of April 8, 2021)
Photo: A Hairy Blenny found on nearshore hardbottom reef.

Most Floridians think of the Keys when they hear the word reef, visualizing colorful coral forests teeming with bright fish. But Vero Beach has reefs, too, right offshore and likewise loaded with marine life.

A new book discussed in a recent Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute lecture highlights this fascinating feature of the Vero environment that many residents don’t have a clue about.

"Islands in the Sand" was co-authored by four Florida scientists: Ken Lindeman of Florida Institute of Technology, Dr. Dan McCarthy of Jacksonville University, Dr. Karen Holloway-Adkins of East Coast Biologists and David Snyder of CSA International.

In the book, the authors tell the story and describe the complex ecology of Florida’s hardbottom reefs that lay close to shore in less than 12 feet of water along the Atlantic Coast between Miami and St. Augustine, including reefs just offshore from Riomar Country Club and Humiston Park.

The reefs are made up mostly of "worm rock" – brittle structures constructed by thousands of the lapidosa marine worm species that glue sand together on top of ancient limestone structures. The worms don't live long but they have prodigious reproductive abilities that speed up the growth of reefs that are home to more than 1,000 species of fish, invertebrates, sea turtles and other marine creatures.

Nearshore hardbottom reefs, says Holloway-Adkins, are migrating and nesting corridors for five species of sea turtles, including the three we find digging nests on our beaches from April through October – loggerhead, green and leatherback.

Holloway-Adkins calls the chain of reefs "a sea turtle superhighway." 

Sponges, crabs, lobsters and fish ranging from small snappers to big sharks also are inhabitants and visitors to the hardbottom reefs just off our beaches.

The reefs are “like an underwater forest," McCarthy said during a recent Harbor Branch lecture. “They are an important ecosystem in Florida that needs more study."

For this reason, care needs to be taken, McCarthy said, to avoid burying these reefs in sand during beach renourishment projects.

While some organisms can easily escape the onslaught of new sand that is trucked from the mainland or pumped from offshore sources, sponges, oysters and clams can't get out of the way and impacts can be lethal.