Disturbance Response and Monitoring Program in Action in the Florida Keys
Florida Keys and southeast Florida mainland, USA
The Florida Reef Resilience Program (FRRP) region includes the Dry Tortugas and Florida Keys, and extends up the southeast Florida coast to Martin County. The FRRP started in 2004, and is a multi-year effort to develop and share management approaches and tools to cope with climate change and other stresses on South Florida’s coral reefs. The Nature Conservancy coordinates the FRRP in conjunction with the State of Florida, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and a Steering Committee of reef managers, scientists, reef user-group representatives and other conservation groups. The project region includes shallow water coral reefs (spanning approximately 30,800 km2), colonized hardbottom, seagrass beds and mangrove communities. The focus of the FRRP has been on stony corals and shallow coral reefs.
The chronic stresses that challenge reefs of South Florida include climate change (including warming seas, coral bleaching, disease and acidification); eutrophication from inadequate wastewater and storm water management systems; coastal development; overfishing; destructive fishing practices; boat groundings; anchor damage and diver impacts. The FRRP region has experienced several significant disturbances during the last three decades, including the Diadema sea urchin die-off of 1984, the 1997-1998 and 2005 bleaching events, and hurricanes including four named storms in 2005. In early 2010, the region experienced a cold water event.
The goals of the FRRP are to improve understanding of reef health in the region, and to identify factors that influence the long-term resilience of corals, reefs and the entire marine ecosystem. With this knowledge in hand, coral reef managers and users can work toward resilience-based management strategies that maximize the benefits of healthy reefs, while seeking to improve conditions of less healthy reefs.
A focal area of the program has been filling spatial and temporal information gaps for stony coral bleaching and other bioindicator monitoring data. The first step in this process was characterization of the >400 km long reef tract from Martin County to the Dry Tortugas into 22 unique reef zones. This created a spatial framework within which a Disturbance Response Monitoring (DRM) scheme could be developed. An online course was developed to train people to monitor corals before and during bleaching and other extreme events.
The DRM focused initially on coral bleaching, but is adaptable to detect and capture responses to other forms of disturbance. During the Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill, the DRM was deployed to detect any detrimental effects from the oil spill to the reefs off Florida. Luckily, the reefs were spared any direct impacts.
The Disturbance Response Monitoring scheme consists of a probabilistic sampling design and a stony coral condition monitoring protocol, implemented during peak thermal stress across the entire South Florida reef tract that extends from Martin County to the Dry Tortugas.
Since 2005, 1758 surveys have been completed by 13 teams from federal, state, and local government agencies, non-profit organizations, and universities during the summer months. Teams enter data on an online database and query through an online mapping service.
2010 Cold Water Event
Following extreme cold temperatures in early January 2010, the FRRP partners initiated a Disturbance Response Monitoring effort to determine the extent of the impact on stony corals in South Florida. Survey sites were randomly selected from a pool of 2005-2009 DRM sites. High resolution sea surface temperature data provided by the University of South Florida was used to further stratify the sample design between sites that experienced temperatures at or below the lethal limit for stony corals (59 degrees) and sites and that did not experience lethally cold conditions.
In early 2010, 78 sites were surveyed across the Florida Reef Tract. The impact of the cold water was very spatially explicit. The areas that sustained the greatest impact were the inshore and mid channel zones from Summerland Key in the lower Keys through Biscayne National Park. Contrary to warm water induced coral bleaching events, the main effect on the stony corals was direct mortality with low levels of bleaching. Frequent observations on specific corals during the event showed that the corals would generally pale for a day, then die, with mortality occurring across all species.
How successful has it been?
From 2005 to 2013, 1758 surveys were completed. Results from these nine years of surveys show spatial and temporal patterns in coral bleaching and colony size frequency distribution, indicating that some reef areas or coral species may be more resilient to stress than others. Minor to moderate bleaching occurred within varying reef areas in 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011. While the causes of this variability remain poorly quantified, projected increases in coral bleaching due to climate change makes identification of these resilient reef areas and species important for long-term coral reef conservation and future management strategies.
An analysis of the data revealed areas of the reef tract that contains higher abundance of corals, larger coral colonies, prevalence of bleaching and prevalence of coral disease. All of these layers combined give an indication of where the reefs are that have a higher resistance to bleaching and disease. Having this information for the entire Florida Reef Tract has allowed coral reef managers to incorporate this into their public processes to improve the management of Florida’s coral reef resources.
With this knowledge in hand, coral reef managers and users can work toward resilience-based management strategies that maximize the benefits of healthy reefs, while seeking to improve conditions of less healthy reefs. Ultimately, the FRRP seeks to improve ecological conditions of Florida’s reefs, economic sustainability of reef-dependent commercial enterprises, and continued recreational use of reef resources.
Lessons learned and recommendations
- Success of this project was highly dependent on the collaboration and contributions of many different agencies and institutions. The scale of the survey was so great that it would not have happened without collaboration. This has also resulted in a continued high level of commitment from the organizations involved.
- Identifying supplementary funding to allow different organizations that had staff and expertise, but lacked the funds, was critical. This enabled a broad spectrum of institutional stakeholders to contribute.
- In the first year, the team was able to demonstrate that an undertaking of this scale was possible and that there was a broad institutional commitment. The success of this pilot effort helped attract additional partners who had initially questioned the feasibility of conducting such large-scale surveys.
- It was important to develop a simple protocol so that surveys could be completed rapidly during the period of peak bleaching occurrence; so that minimal training was required; and so that the resulting data set was consistent.
- It was important at the beginning to agree on the scale, sampling goals, and protocol, so that the process was clear to participants.
- It was important to continue surveys each year regardless of the level of coral bleaching to keep surveyors up to date with the methodology in case of unexpected disturbances (e.g. 2010 cold water event). This also keeps the survey work in team members’ annual workplans and budgets, facilitating their ongoing participation.
Florida Department of Environmental Protection—Coastal and Aquatic Managed Areas
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—Coral Reef Conservation Program
Florida’s Wildlife Legacy Initiative—State Wildlife Grant
Darden Restaurants Foundation
Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd—Ocean Fund
Curtis and Edith Munson Foundation
Peacock Foundation Inc.
Mote Marine Tropical Research Laboratory
Southeast Florida Coral Reef Initiative
Florida Department of Environmental Protection
Biscayne Bay Environmental Center
Florida Department of Environmental Protection
John Pennekamp State Park
Florida Department of Environmental Protection
Office of Coastal & Aquatic Managed Areas
Southeast Florida Aquatic Preserves Field Office
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Division of Habitat and Species Conservation
South Regional Office
South Regional Laboratory
Broward County: Environmental Protection and Growth
Miami Dade County
Dept. of Environmental Resources Mgmt.
Restoration and Enhancement Section
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences
Nova Southeastern University National Coral Reef Institute
Nova Southeastern Univ. Oceanographic Center
Florida Institute of Technology
National Park Service Biscayne National Park
National Park Service Dry Tortugas National Park
The Nature Conservancy’s Florida Reef Resilience Program
South Florida’s Bleaching Response Plan (pdf)