Florida is on the verge of losing one of its most precious commodities.
"I'm not going to sugarcoat it. The state of the Florida Reef Tract is dire," Dr. Erinn Muller of Mote Marine Laboratory on Summerland Key said.
Already crippled by bleaching, dredging, pollution and storm damage, now our coral reefs are under assault from disease.
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"We are losing corals at an unprecedented rate," Muller admitted. "The Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease has been ravaging the reef for the past five years."
Scientists point to evidence that some species lost up to 95% of the colonies in the Florida Keys. Many of those species are responsible for building the framework of the reefs.
Muller is part of a collaboration of scientists trying to figure out what is causing the disease and how they can fight it. During a two-week study over the summer, Muller and her team were part of an expedition orchestrated by OceanX surveying more than 100 reef sites.
"The goal for the OceanX mission this trip was to get a pulse on the reef tract from Key Biscayne all the way to the Dry Tortugas. We hope this will give us a way for managing this disease outbreak as it continues and to prevent it from occurring in the future."
Scientists cannot be certain as to the cause, but they suspect it's bacterial and spread through the seawater.
Climate change may have given it the perfect conditions for the decimation.
"As the environment changes, whether it's from global climate change or local habitat degradation, corals are becoming more vulnerable to disease infection because they're becoming more immune compromised," Muller said.
"This disease is only the latest insult, unfortunately, to these reefs," added Dr. Vincent Pieribone, a Yale physiologist and Vice Chairman of OceanX. "It's like a wildfire burning through our reefs. It's just horrible. It's a disaster."
The disease turn coral tissue white and causes it to fall off the coral skeleton and it affects 22 different coral species. Researchers believe it started in Miami and spread north to Martin County, then south to Key West.
"It's probably the worst coral disease outbreak that's ever been recorded anywhere in the world," said Dr. Andrew Baker, a marine biologist at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.
While OceanX studies the disease on the reef, Baker is part of UM's coral rescue operation that saves healthy coral colonies before they can get infected.
"It's been decided that we should identify corals that are ahead of the disease outbreak and bring them into these land-based facilities while the disease outbreak goes through."
UM's dive team locates healthy colonies in the Dry Tortugas where the disease hasn't reached yet. They then carefully remove corals from the reefs to bring back to the Key Biscayne lab. On average, a dozen divers can collect 130 corals per day.
But it's more than just a search and rescue operation.
"I think the goal is actually more ambitious than that," Baker said. "What we want to do is use these corals as seed stock for the next generation, so we're actually going to be trying to breed these so that their offspring can be used to be replanted onto the reefs."
"And because these corals didn't see the disease, it means that all of that genetic diversity that would have ordinarily been lost is preserved."
The rescued corals are studied, cared for and, after a few weeks, delivered to aquariums around the country for specialized care.
"During which time we will be developing our breeding and restoration strategies to take those corals back and continue the work here in Florida," said Lisa Gregg of the Florida Coral Rescue Team co-leader. "It may be three years, maybe five years. We know that when it is time, we will be ready."
UM and OceanX, in coordination with Florida Sea Grant, NOAA, Florida Fish & Wildlife and more, undertake these efforts because of the importance that coral reefs represent to South Florida.
"These reefs are really important, not just because they're the rainforests of the sea, but actually because they protect our coastlines from storms," Baker stated. "I think we have to realize that Miami has an environmental economy and it's worth money and if we don't invest in that, we can't expect it to be sustainable."
"We're not taking the necessary measures to protect them from the threats that we ourselves are creating. If you lose the coral reef resources, all of those things that we take for granted to sustain our essentially tourist economy are going to be lost."
For Pieribone, this crusade is personal. He is a native of Titusville and grew up diving in the Florida Keys.
"We have this amazing asset and it's our collective responsibility to protect it," Pieribone attested. "We owe it to ourselves and the world to do what we can. It's hurting right now."
"We simply cannot allow our barrier reef to be lost. It's as important as the sequoias and the redwoods. This is a national treasure and letting this go is simply not an option."