Thoughts on Florida’s Reefs

The Barb Schmidt Fellows participate in a beach cleanup hosted by Boca Save Our Beaches Feb. 5, 2022. The Barb Schmidt Fellowship is a Florida Atlantic University-sponsored fellowship dedicated to social activism, mindfulness, and project-based community service. Author Benjamin Schnirman is in the bottom row, third from left.
Photo courtesy Dr. Angela Nichols

One of the many things I find myself intrigued by⁠ is our coral reefs. We never seem to talk about them, and yet they’re definitely there⁠—the Great Florida Reef, the only reef in the continental United States and the third-largest in the world, is right off our Atlantic coast.

I’ve never seen it, but it’s dying.

Like all reefs, the Floridian reef system is suffering from a rapidly-changing climate due to human negligence⁠. Rising and heating sea waters cause corals to expel their zooxanthellae, the photosynthetic microorganisms they depend on for energy⁠—a tragic self-starvation that results in coral bleaching. In Florida’s reefs in particular, as with many reefs throughout the Caribbean Sea, a widespread outbreak of stony coral tissue loss disease has affected 90% of all Floridian corals

When corals get sick, their entire ecosystems get sick. And when corals die, their entire ecosystems die.

Florida’s reefs are dying⁠—and now, 98% of their species are gone. It’s far too late to hope that these corals grow back by any means, and we as a society have largely failed in our efforts to contain the damage, though not for lack of trying: two-thirds of the reef system lies within the boundaries of Dry Tortugas National Park and other protected areas. 

The simple fact is coral reef die-offs are beyond our local control. An ever more connected human world is increasingly disconnected from the natural.

It’s dying, and yet we’re standing here, doing nothing. It’s true that there’s no obligation for us, as common citizens, to do anything about this issue. We shouldn’t contribute to a culture of compassion fatigue, breaking our metaphorical backs for the sake of a planet ruined not by our individual actions but by the hubris of industrialists which directly account for nearly a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions and indirectly add to even more, and whose thoughtless action and wanton inaction cause severe environmental disasters year after year.

And yet here I am⁠—or rather, we are. Over the past six months, I along with four amazing partners and friends have been learning how to make a difference in reef protection through the Barb Schmidt Fellowship at Florida Atlantic University. I have to admit that before being pushed to research and to engage with the subject, I gave little thought to coral reefs. Of course they were important, crucial even—but I was convinced I was going to do something to improve human lives: advocate for cycling infrastructure or affordable housing or whatever urbanist cause I was going to set my sights on. 

Now, we’re trying to help build an artificial reef⁠—and I’ve realized now how amazing this work will be.

Building an artificial coral reef is nothing new, but it requires tremendous amounts of work, time, planning, research, and funding⁠—and we’re just getting started. When we spoke with the Palm Beach County Department of Environmental Resource Management, they told us it could cost up to $60,000 just to transport the reefs to their final destination on a barge⁠, not including construction or any other costs. It won’t be ready to go out until summer 2023. And it’ll take an amount of cinderblock unimaginable to anyone who doesn’t work in construction.

The number one problem is cost: we’re partnering with the experienced Andrew “Red” Harris Foundation to build the reef and secure permits for the actual deployment. But regardless of what happens, we won’t let Florida’s reefs die on our watch.

The author is Editor-in-Chief of the Navigator and a Barb Schmidt Fellowship member for the 2021-2022 cohort.

Categories: Editorial

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