Florida’s Coral Reefs Are Under Threat and You Need to Get Involved. Here’s How.

Florida’s coral reef ecosystems are in peril. A number of possible solutions are being examined to protect this precious resource.
gag grouper
Coral reefs are home to gag grouper, like this one. Alex Suescun

Fishing isn’t destroying Florida’s coral reefs. However, prohibiting fishing is one idea that has been floated in the fight to save them. If anglers want to protect the reefs while enjoying the great fishing they offer, then they need to make their voices heard at a webinar for stakeholders on Aug 23. (More info below.)

Anyone who has spent time fishing along Florida’s coast understands the value of coral reefs and reefs in general. They are important to anglers because they are important to fish. But these coral reef ecosystems face a number of threats. These run the gamut from land-based sources of pollution (LBSP) to increasing water temperatures.

There are also impacts from normal uses such as fishing and diving. But they are minimal, and should be easier to mitigate without restricting user access.

Back in the early 2000’s, the Southeast Florida Coral Reef Initiative (SEFCRI) was established as part of the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force, which was developing a national plan to conserve and protect coral reefs. The SEFCRI identified the Fishing, Diving and Other Uses (FDOU) area as a focal point for study.

The stated goal of the FDOU Focus Area was to “work with the community of local stakeholders, scientists, resource managers and all regulating agencies to develop stakeholder-driven management recommendations and subsequently an adaptive management plan to reduce impacts to Southeast Florida’s reefs.”

No Fishing?

On the face of it, anglers should be supportive of this type of effort, knowing the value of reefs for maintaining a variety of fish populations. The fly in the ointment that keeps popping up is the threat of that “no fishing” sign.

While this has yet to be proposed as a solution, according to Kaitlyn Lizza with the Coral Reef Protection Program, it is under discussion as a possible outcome. This would ultimately be counter-productive to the whole effort.

If fishing is a real problem, then concentrating that effort on smaller sections of reef will make it worse. Also, alienating a user group that could be a valuable resource to help make progress is counterproductive.

The Real Culprit

spraying weed control chemicals
Spraying weed control chemicals throughout Florida’s canal system is hurting the state’s coral reefs. Rip Cunningham

Here is an interesting statistic: From Ft. Pierce down to Miami, 98% of the reefs are already dead. This was not caused by fishing or diving. It is mainly a product of a coral virus that spread up the coast and pollution from runoff coming out of the canal systems used for flood control, which dump into the inland waterway systems and eventually out into the ocean.

This run off contains chemicals that are used to control weeds in the canals as well as nutrients from fertilizers and old, outdated septic systems. Other impacts from the weed control chemicals are fish kills in the canals. There also is an impact from increasing water temperature. Something can be done about the run-off, but the increase in temperature is harder. Either way, the damage to the reefs is not a primary result of fishing.

A Way Forward

What are some of the possible solutions that can be put in place right now?

First, push to stop the chemical control of weeds in the canal systems and return to mechanical removal of the weeds. Try to educate folks to minimize the use of fertilizers along the shore areas, or at least inform them of low phosphate varieties that have a lesser impact. The SEFCRI has done a lot of work on the issues with LBSP, which you can read about on their website.

Capt. Dan Kipnis, SEFCRI committee member and former charter captain, suggested that the effort is being concentrated on the 2% of the remaining live reef and perhaps it should be on the other 98%. He feels that a major effort to place reef balls parallel to the existing reef would help stabilize the structure and enhance fish populations.

Certainly, some common-sense regulations on restricting the use of anchors would offer some protection to the remaining reefs. A longer-term possibility is the development of a coral that is more resistant to warmer water. This is being worked on in several areas along the Southeast coast and in the Pacific.

But prohibiting fishing is not the answer.

Public Comment Welcome

There are a number of possibilities under consideration by the SEFCRI and the committee will take public comment at a webinar on Tuesday August 23 from 6 to 8 pm EDT. Visit this link to register.

If you want to be heard and the committee wants stakeholder input, take the time to attend. Your voice counts.

This article’s original headline, “Can Prohibiting Fishing Save Florida’s Coral Reefs?” has been changed to emphasize the fact that fishing prohibitions have NOT been proposed by the Southeast Florida Coral Reef Initiative.