Planning for climate change to protect Florida's reefs

By Alex Score

We have been witnessing climate change impacts in Florida for over 30 years. The impacts of sea level rise into bays and estuaries, eroding shoreline and inundating aquifers is now very real. We are also beginning to understand the effects of ocean acidification, caused by the absorption of carbon dioxide into the ocean and making carbonate less available for organisms to build shells or skeletons, such as lobster, shrimp, and coral reefs. The ocean is also getting warmer leading to coral bleaching and diseases which can lead to coral death.

We are also experiencing coastal marine habitat degradation, overfishing, and impaired water quality including unknown impacts from the Deep Water Horizon oil spill and dispersant applications in the Gulf of Mexico. These stressors all compound upon one another challenging and risking Florida’s coastal and marine areas. This is especially true for the Florida reef system, which expands 350 miles from the Dry Tortugas, along the entire length of the Florida Keys and up the south Florida mainland off Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, and Martin counties. The services from this unique ecosystem generate 71,000 jobs and $6.3 billion in sales and income annually. The continued degradation and loss of the Florida reef system will irrevocably change the south Florida way of life. At some point, we need to ask ourselves if we are willing to do what it takes to sustain these services for the not so distant future.

To respond to these compounding climate change and habitat degradation threats, a group of managers, scientist, reef users, and environmental organizations worked together over the past two years to develop a plan to address climate change impacts to Florida’s coral reefs, The Climate Change Action Plan for the Florida Reef System 2010-2015 (Action Plan). This is the first plan of its kind in Florida that builds on the concept of “resilience” or the ability of corals to resist and tolerate negative impacts, and recover. The Action Plan is an innovative effort to help a region deal with the reality of climate change. We envision it as a catalyst to spur climate adaptation beyond the Florida Reef System—up the Florida peninsula and across the Caribbean.

The Action Plan involves local actions that need to be implemented across political, social, and jurisdictional boundaries that provide an insurance policy for the sustainability of these reef systems. It is designed to accomplish three main goals: 1) increasing reef resilience through active management, 2) enhancing resilience of reef-dependent communities and industries via outreach and adaptation planning, and 3) conducting targeted research. It includes 22 management actions, 10 social resilience and outreach actions, and 8 research priorities for the region, which, if implemented, are designed to increase the resilience of the Florida reef system throughout the five counties.

EcoAdapt coordinated this effort along with Florida Reef Resilience Program and The Nature Conservancy. The Action Plan will serve as the framework for climate change management, education, and research priorities for Florida's coral reefs. Its success will be determined by the successful implementation regionwide.