Coral reef study gets boost from NSF

FIU has received grant to study the adverse effects of algae and microbes on coral reefs.

The $822,000 grant is funded by the National Science Foundation.

“Healthy fish and marine populations thrive on healthy coral reefs,” said Deron Burkepile, a Marine Sciences professor in the Department in Biological Sciences. “Human beings also depend on reef ecosystems as a source of nutrition and economic well-being. Major reef systems exist in four areas of the world. When the fish populations in these areas decline because of unhealthy or dead coral reefs, the people in these areas are also negatively affected.”

Coral reefs in the Caribbean are experiencing a decline in live coral cover due to climate change, pollution and reductions in fish abundance and diversity, according to Burkepile.

“A healthy coral reef is typically covered 30 to 50 percent in live coral,” Burkepile said. “Recently, coral reefs in the Florida Keys have been found to have only 5 to 10 percent coverage.”

A healthy coral reef system has fungi and bacteria such as algae that grow in its skeleton and create vitamins and antibodies that keep it safe. However, excessive coral cover decline leads to the proliferation of algae that suppresses the growth of juvenile and adult corals. Too much algae in a reef can also potentially change from being a helpful antigen to a harmful pathogen, which has led Burkepile to undertake this research.

To aid its research efforts, FIU received star coral fragments from the Naval Air Station (NAS) Key West and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

“Star coral is one of the most important reef system generating corals there is,” Burkepile said. “Getting the coral from NAS and the sanctuary was great because it saved us from collecting it ourselves and impacting the natural coral populations. We wouldn’t be able to conduct our study without the NAS initiative.”

More than 1,500 coral fragments and colonies were removed from the Mole Pier in Key West Harbor as part of a naval seawall restoration project with the Florida Aquarium, Georgia Aquarium, Pittsburgh Zoo, University of Miami School of Marine & Atmospheric Science and others. The corals are currently in nurseries being cared for, studied and showcased.

“To remove the coral fragments from the colony, we used household tools including hammers, paint scrapers and chisels,” said Mark Ladd, adjunct professor in the Department of Earth & Environment. “It was amazing to see the sizes of the coral colonies and the numbers that were rescued. It’s great to know that, not only were they saved, but they will be used for research to facilitate reef recovery in damaged areas.”