Mote Marine Lab’s Erinn Muller outlines the laboratory’s recent preservation efforts. ALEX RICKERT/Keys Weekly

Though some rainfall and winds through late July and early August have provided a brief chance for coral scientists battling an extreme heat wave and bleaching event to catch their breath, the Keys remain entrenched in a historic marine ecological event. It’s no stretch to say that the next few months could – and should, according to many – alter the landscape of coral restoration and preservation practices for years to come.

How exactly to communicate the severity of this year’s event – preserving hope and perseverance while acknowledging a crisis larger than most have ever experienced – headlined the Aug. 15 meeting of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council (SAC).

The council’s afternoon session opened with a briefing by sanctuary superintendent Sarah Fangman on the ongoing heat event, followed by presentations from stakeholders like Reef Renewal USA, Mote Marine Laboratory and the Monroe County Tourist Development Council (TDC).

“I’m not here to tell you it’s all doom and gloom, but I’m also not here to tell you everything’s fine,” Fangman said. “The story has yet to be fully written, but the good news is that there are healthy corals out there.” 

She pointed to an ongoing research cruise with an 11-member scientific diving team set to visit Mission: Iconic Reefs sites starting late last week as a valuable tool in assessing damage from bleaching thus far. A follow-up cruise is tentatively slated for January or February 2024 to provide a final assessment once water temperatures drop for the winter. New temperature buoys capable of providing readings both at the water’s surface and at depth should also provide practitioners with real-time data to better inform preservation, restoration and outplanting efforts.

Offering snapshots of bleaching impacts as her team continues its work combating stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD), Nova Southeastern University’s Karen Neely provided an overview of bleaching at 14 reef sites over the past three weeks, described in relation to each location’s Degree Heating Weeks (DHW) – a way to quantify heat stress accumulated in a particular area. 

While Upper Keys reefs such as Carysfort Reef and Hen and Chickens had yet to exhibit bleaching-related coral mortality, several Middle and Lower Keys reefs – at 10 to 12 DHWs – showed significant mortality along with “extensive black band disease,” another tissue degradation ailment. 

Not helping matters for several Middle and Lower Keys reefs is a sunken layer of dense, heated hypersaline water flowing out of the islands’ shallow bay side – one that divers have described as a “reverse thermocline” as they descend into warm layers of water “cooking” corals on the seafloor.

Reef Renewal USA’s Ken Nedimyer addresses the Sanctuary Advisory Council. ALEX RICKERT/Keys Weekly

Though silver linings are hard to come by in this heat wave, Neely took care to discuss “a small point of hope”: Her team has observed a significant scaling down of the deadly SCTLD with the arrival of bleaching each summer.

Reef Renewal USA technical director Ken Nedimyer touted his team’s emergency move of healthy Upper Keys corals in shallow nurseries to deeper, cooler 70-foot temporary nurseries, tipping his cap to quick permitting responses from governing bodies that sped up a normally months-long timeline into two or three days when needed.

He praised corals produced by Mote and sent to Reef Renewal by Tampa’s Florida Aquarium (FLAQ). Paired with a different algal symbiont than other corals – the expulsion of which defines bleaching and a coral’s increased vulnerability – Nedimyer said 50 or 60 different corals with separate genotypes placed in upper-level nurseries have all shown impressive resistance to bleaching, even with water temperatures into the 90s.

“There’s hope that we can produce corals that can handle conditions of the 21st century,” he said. “We’re staying the course, but it’s nerve-wracking.”

Reef Renewal board member and SAC vice chair Ben Daughtry described his company Dynasty Marine’s contribution to the puzzle. By this fall, a 30,000-gallon tank formerly used for sharks and rays will serve as an emergency coral housing system for Middle and Lower Keys nursery specimens.

Keys Marine Lab (KML) director Cindy Lewis touched on the human side of exhaustive ongoing efforts. She thanked organizations for their trust in KML as the facility works to maintain a Noah’s Ark of sorts of rescued corals, some of which visit the facility as a “halfway house” on their way to Mote Marine Lab’s genetic bank in Sarasota.

“The emotional strain on these people has been incredible,” she said. “My heart goes out to them, and I can’t thank everybody enough for entrusting us with all of these corals right now.”

Mote Marine Lab’s Erinn Muller outlined the laboratory’s work to preserve existing coral genotypes in Mote’s land-based nurseries and Sarasota gene bank, but highlighted Mote’s decision to leave some representatives from all genotypes in in-water nurseries.

“We need to know what’s going to withstand this event, because this isn’t, unfortunately, going to be unique in the future,” she said. “We shouldn’t be outplanting for those years in between stressful events; we should be doing restoration planning that these events are going to occur.

“The more research we can do to make those corals that are heat tolerant or disease resistant, while also maintaining genetic diversity, is going to give that population the resistance we need.”

A presentation by Andy Newman on behalf of the TDC acknowledged, as several other stakeholders did, the extreme media interest in the bleaching event. But Newman was critical of sweeping initial statements made at the start of the heat wave, calling out reports that painted Keys reefs as “destined for annihilation.”

A lengthy discussion following Newman’s presentation left the room silent at several points in between passionate comments, with all seeking to balance an acknowledgement of the bleaching event’s true severity and repercussions with a need to rely on facts and data instead of emotion and sensationalism when painting a picture of a fragile ecosystem in a tourism-dependent economy. 

It was a setting befitting what one observer described to the Weekly as “a room full of people who just got their job titles changed from restoration practitioners to endangered species conservationists overnight.”

Several thanked Nedimyer for his positivity in reports on Upper Keys reefs, crediting his optimism for providing “great energy to keep trying” as practitioners continue their efforts.

“It’s a terrible situation, and it’s a catastrophic event … (but) all hope is not lost,” said Daughtry. “That’s really critical for people to understand that.”

“There are scientists out there with prestigious institutions that have not signed on to (the severity of this),” Newman said.

Others acknowledged the importance of hopeful reports, but didn’t want to sugarcoat an undeniable underlying issue.

“I had a reporter tell me, ‘You know, the science is still out on (the warming event),’” said flats fishing guide Will Benson. “I was so upset by that when I hung up the phone. You’re telling my doom-and-gloom story, and we’re down here suffering, but you don’t want to acknowledge what every scientist all around the world is saying? You’re just happy to tell my death story, but you’re not going to report the facts on it?”

“There’s lots of great work that is going on, but there’s no cohesive, collaborative effort that’s working together to integrate novel interventions in a targeted way,” added Muller. “I’m hoping this event will move that to the forefront of everybody’s mind.”

Fangman closed with an addition to her earlier briefing, saying she was “frustrated by the very small toolbox” the sanctuary had on hand to deal with the extreme temperature stress. 

“I was shaking trees – what can we pilot test in the face of (this)? The problem is, many of these things you’d want to start doing at the beginning of the event,” she said. “What I’m being told … is that it’s kind of too late. So we’ve scaled back some of those pilot ideas that came out a month ago, but are still trying to pursue them. Maybe we won’t have more tools in our toolbox for this event, but this isn’t the last event. We have a really small team and a pretty small budget, and so, like everyone, we’re doing our very best.”

Alex Rickert made the perfectly natural career progression from dolphin trainer to newspaper editor in 2021 after freelancing for Keys Weekly while working full time at Dolphin Research Center. A resident of Marathon since 2015, he fell in love with the Florida Keys community by helping multiple organizations and friends rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Irma. An avid runner, actor, and spearfisherman, he spends as much of his time outside of work on or under the sea having civil disagreements with sharks.