In what experts are calling one of the worst coral bleaching episodes in two decades, Florida’s coral reefs have been decimated this summer by the death of acres of corals. The direct result of abnormally-high water temperatures, bleaching occurs when corals expel the beneficial algae which provide their coloration and some of their nutrition. This bleaching leaves the coral polyps vulnerable to disease, and is often fatal. What is left behind is a severely-weakened or dying coral colony characterized by white calciferous skeletons. Waves and tides break apart these skeletons, leaving a bleached wasteland where once there had been a vibrant reef habitat.
According to Margaret Miller, ecologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service Southeast Fisheries Science Center, “It’s significant impact, and it’s permanent…Corals do not grow back very effectively. So that’s a permanent loss to our coral community. It just becomes rock.”
Federal and state officials say the damage began this summer as water temperatures peaked. They expect conditions to improve as ocean waters cool this fall and winter. However, they caution, many coral communities, which support a wide variety of fish and invertebrates, may be so damaged they may not be able to recover.