One of the largest barrier reefs exists off the coast of Florida. Florida's Coral Reef stretches almost 350 miles from the Dry Tortugas to the St. Lucie Inlet. It is home to more than 40 species of corals that are living beings and responsible for building and maintaining the reef structure. The reef is an important asset which protects the Florida coast, is home to abundant sea life, and it is a key feature of snorkling, diving, fishing and ocean-loving tourism for the state.
The reef is in crisis from pollution and Stoney Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD), both of which are killing corals at an alarming rate. One of the main components of the pollution is commonly found in sunscreen. Just a small amount of these chemicals is enough to cause coral bleaching and increase the susceptibility to viral infections.
The offending chemicals in sunscreen are oxybenzone and octinoxate. Hawaii banned the sale of sunscreen containing these chemicals in 2018, and Key West, FL has followed suit in 2021. To help the coral reef thrive, do your part by choosing "reef safe" sunscreen, or opting for long sleeve Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) clothing, sunglasses and hats.
When we talk about "Saving Wildlife & Wild Places," images of fieldwork being done on land is what comes to mind. The work the Zoo does for Florida panthers, swallow-tailed kites, snail kites, and Perdido Key beach mice is all conducted above sea level. However, some of the world's most wild places are on the ocean floor, right off the coast of Palm Beach County. This provides an incredibly important opportunity for Palm Beach Zoo staff members to trade in their hiking boots for fins to dive deeper into conservation. The wildlife in need? Coral.
Your Zoo is just one of many throughout the state that have dive teams. Other teams from organizations like Keys Marine Lab, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, University of Miami, and many more are collaborating on the same underwater mission as Palm Beach Zoo but in different parts of Southern Florida. All the teams work together as part of the Florida Reef Resilience Program. This program is in its infancy, as the main disease facing corals, Stoney Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD) was only discovered in Florida in 2014. Since SCTLD is so new to this area, the most important coral conservation activity right now is data collection. Where is it? How bad is it? What corals are getting hit the hardest?
Palm Beach Zoo was approached by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and FWC (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) three years ago and just completed its third season of survey work. The research is collected by the team which surveys 4-5 sites each outing for the effects of coral bleaching and SCTLD during the annual period of peak thermal stress during an 8-10 week period. This data is shared with reef managers who assess the extent of the effects and facilitate adaptive management. Stay tuned for updates from our reef team!
Zoologist Nancy Nill takes a measurement.
Palm Beach Zoo's General Curator Mike Terrell notates the findings on his data sheet.
Terrell and Zoo COO Casey Coy define the area to be studied.
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