Florida coral reefs are integral to medicine but plagued by disease

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Florida’s coral reefs are dying, and that’s not a good thing for us.

“We’re going to lose our tourism. We’re going to lose our fisheries,” explained Zachary Craig who is a coral restoration technician at Mote’s marine lab on Summerland Key.

“It’s heartbreaking. It really is,” added Lindsay Arick who is a staff chemist at Mote. She’s originally from the Naples area. “A lot of the fish that we have down here, that fish community is the same that we see in Naples, Fort Myers and Marco Island,” she said.

Those fish depend on coral off our coast.

“They give us the structure our fish and other animals need to survive here,” Arick said.

Disease is sweeping through the coral and killing it. Now, Mote is working to figure out why.

“If you enjoy lobster, snapper or grouper, a lot of these animals spend most of their lives in coral reefs,” shared Joey Mandara who is a staff biologist at Mote. He cuts pieces of coral into smaller pieces which they’ll plant back in the ocean after some growth here in the lab.

Mandara added, “what we hope to achieve is to restore these corals back to their natural state.” Doing so provides a home for the seafood you love and protection from storm surge like they had with Hurricane Irma in the keys.

“If we hadn’t had that reef six miles offshore, then we could’ve had much greater damage than we did,” Mandara added.

They’ve got a big challenge ahead.

“I’ve seen the decline happen even faster in the last two years,” Arick said.

As sea temperature rise and lead to more coral bleaching researchers like Arick hope they can reverse that decline and keep the water around our state healthy. Coral reefs support 70,000 local jobs in Florida and bring more than $6 billion into our economy.

Though the water around the Florida Keys may look healthy, Abigail Clark is a staff biologist at Mote and told WINK News the disease killing the coral, “is very similar to a common cold and how it’s spread among people.”

She said it started near Miami and has spread down the keys. They’re not sure what’s causing it, but it’s wiping out corals that have taken hundreds of years to grow. That’s having an impact on future medical advancements in your hospital.

Clark added, “coral reefs also provide several different compounds that may lead to cancer cures and antibiotic resistance.” The reefs also lead to treatments for arthritis, Alzheimer’s and heart diseases. One of the biggest medical breakthroughs to come from coral reefs is AZT, which is a drug that slows the progression of HIV into AIDS.

“We like to think of ourselves as the call out for help,” added Craig. He’s developing techniques that could help other reefs around the world. “We’re hoping that other programs will look at it as a part of what needs to be done to keep coral reefs healthy,” he added.

“The Florida Keys Reef Tract is in one of the worst conditions in the world,” Craig said. It’s the third largest living reef on the planet, but over the last 40 years, Mote says some areas have lost 90 percent of indigenous corals.

That’s why they’re working to grow 10,000 coral colonies to replant on the reef in hopes of keeping this crucial part of Florida’s ecosystem and economy going for years to come.

“We, as a scientific community, have banded together, and together we will solve this mystery,” Clark concluded. Mote hopes that saving our reefs will lead to future life-saving breakthroughs.

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