DEP CRCP’s BleachWatch Program Helps Capture Summer 2014 Coral Bleaching Event
Karen Bohnsack, Reef Resilience Coordinator
This past summer, beautiful warm and calm conditions prompted many divers in southeast Florida to hit the water. What they discovered in many areas was both unexpected and, for some, unfamiliar – many of the corals had turned white!
This phenomenon, known as coral bleaching, occurs when corals lose their symbiotic algae, zooxanthellae, which provide food and oxygen to the coral and are also largely responsible for their normal, healthy coloration. While this is a natural occurrence that appears to some extent every year, the summer 2014 event proved to be more severe and widespread than what has been observed in southeast Florida in at least ten years. Such large-scale mass coral bleaching events are driven by warm sea temperatures and intensified by light stress, both of which increase during periods of low winds and minimal cloud cover. While such conditions are ideal for divers, corals can bleach if they continue uninterrupted. Conversely, as conditions improve, corals can regain their symbiotic algae and survive the bleaching event.
FDEP’s CRCP and a network of divers helped to capture the summer 2014 coral bleaching event through the SEAFAN BleachWatch program. Now in its second year, SEAFAN BleachWatch is a community-based coral bleaching early warning network where local divers and snorkelers are trained to identify and report coral bleaching. FDEP staff monitor satellite sea surface temperature data and evaluate those observer network reports to produce monthly summaries of conditions in southeast Florida.
A total of 35 reports were received this summer, most from Miami-Dade and Broward Counties. These reports generally reflect the change in bleaching severity between June and November, escalating from reports of mild bleaching in the early summer, to more severe and widespread bleaching in August and September, then gradually returning to mild bleaching observations in October and November. Types of coral affected included everything from branching corals such as staghorn and finger corals, to brain corals, and mounding/boulder corals, including great star coral, massive starlet coral and mustard hill coral, among others. In addition to stony corals, divers also observed bleached gorgonians, Palythoa, and fire coral. Although water temperatures have now cooled, some corals may still be exhibiting signs of stress from previous conditions. FDEP and partners will conduct follow-up surveys in early 2015 to attempt to determine the impact of the 2014 bleaching event and the status of coral recovery.
Many thanks to all of the dedicated members of the BleachWatch observer network, and especially to observers from Force-E Pompano and Divers Direct Miami for being especially active participants of the BleachWatch program this year. We’ll see you next summer!
To view this summer’s Current Conditions Reports and for more information about the BleachWatch Program, visit: http://www.dep.state.fl.us/coastal/programs/coral/bleachwatch.htm. Additional BleachWatch training classes will be offered starting in spring 2015.
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