By Reef Check EcoDiver Kramer Wimberley of DWP-CARES
Reef Check EcoDivers Riane Tyler and Kramer Wimberley created “Diving With a Purpose Collective Approach to Restoring our EcoSystem” (DWP-CARES) as a community science-based program that teaches key indicator species identification and the documentation and assessment of coral reef health in conjunction with outplanting hard corals in an attempt to regenerate and restore reef structure. We work with traditionally disenfranchised youths and communities, and this year partnered with Key Dives in Islamorada, Florida, home of I.CARE (Islamorada Conservation and Restoration Education).
DWP-CARES brought together youth from around the US, Costa Rica and the Caribbean with the goal to become Reef Check EcoDiver Trainers to offer the EcoDiver program to coastal communities throughout Florida and the Caribbean. While we were conducting our surveys in Key Largo, there were times when we had to pause data collection because it was too emotionally overwhelming to witness the declining rugosity, the increase in gorgonian coverage as well as the proliferation of Palythoa. We were literally ascending in tears. For us, this is an indication of the transition from a hard coral to a soft coral ecosystem. We felt exposing participants to the trauma of data collection without offering hope was not a sustainable model for success, so we incorporated coral outplanting into our model to give us hope and a reason to continue the work. We were also in the middle of the SCTLD (Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease) outbreak and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary marine biologist asked if we could look for the presence of 8 boulder corals critically impacted by the disease.
This year’s program really brought home the impact of climate change and what it’s doing to our oceans. Less than a week before the program was scheduled to begin in July, we received a call from Key Dives to say that water temperatures rose to 91 degrees Fahrenheit and that all coral outplanting in the Florida Keys had been halted. We were forced to come face to face with the reality of climate change and tell our 20 participants that the thing that they were most excited about engaging in this year would not happen because the water temperature was causing corals to bleach. Not only was Mote Marine Laboratory not outplanting, organizations were panicked attempting to remove recent outplants to preserve them and/or move the nurseries to deeper waters and potentially cooler water temperatures.
Confronted with the reality of the situation, my team of youth proved to be extremely resilient as they focused on coral outplant maintenance and documenting.
What we observed in the first instance was Millepora (fire coral) appeared to be the first and most prevalent species to bleach along with Palythoa, both of which are abundant on the reef. Subsequent to that, we began to see the branching corals Acropora cervicornis and Acropora palmata paling and bleaching, along with many of the boulder corals. We also observed what appeared to be an increase in algae proliferation. Students had the opportunity to witness healthy corals right next to corals that were paling and other corals that were bleaching, as well as recently killed coral. The tragedy of the situation is that this area was recovering from the SCTLD outbreak, only to be hit by this bleaching event. We are not seeing SCTLD ravage the waters where we are conducting surveys as actively as we have in previous years; the disease has decimated these waters since 2014. I don’t know if the impact seems less because of all that it has already been destroyed or whether it has run its course here. What I can say is that we are seeing small coral fragments and colonies that we thought were gone from these waters, appear again. We haven’t seen zipper coral (Meandrina meandrites) of any size or frequency in recent years. This past month we witnessed one 22 cm in diameter completely bleached.
What was also apparent was the unified approach everyone in the area took to addressing this immediate and catastrophic event affecting the corals and the reef. There was a recognition that if something wasn’t done to address the harm, everything would be lost. In that moment, there were no politics, no blame, no egos; just a recognition that we all needed to work together around a common goal, saving the corals and documenting the event. We are feverishly working to convert a team of recreational scuba divers into community scientists to document this crisis and work towards resolution using CARES and Reef Check as a vehicle. The more we educate divers about their relationship with the coral ecosystem, the greater the chance of creating another ocean and coral advocate.