The Florida Reef Tract

As you may know, Broward County is bordered to the east with 23 miles of coastline stretching alongside the Atlantic Ocean. The Greater Fort Lauderdale region sits right in the middle of a vibrant underwater community that extends 360 linear miles from the Dry Tortugas all the way to the St. Lucie Inlet. This entire underwater ecosystem is where you can find the third largest barrier reef in the world, called the Florida Reef Tract. An economic study has shown that the various uses of coral reefs contributes more than $2 billion to our county’s annual economy and creates more than 36,000 jobs!

coral reefCan you believe that the corals in our reef tract are thought to have originated some 6,000 years ago? The oldest and largest known coral colony in Broward County’s began its life in 1694 making it more than 300 years old, growing up to 15 feet in length and 9 feet high.

Coral reefs are many times called the “rainforests of the sea” because of the amount of biodiversity that they support. Did you know that they occupy less than 0.1% of the world's entire ocean area yet provide a home for at least 25% of all marine species which includes fish, mollusks, worms, echinoderms, sponges and many other sea animals? Our coral reef tract is especially important to our environment here in Florida because they help break up wave energy crashing ashore during hurricanes, prevent beach erosion, and are nurseries for baby fish and other marine life. Recreational and commercial fisherman rely on many important species like grouper, snapper, and lobster, who all got their start as juveniles on our coral reefs. Perhaps most importantly, coral reefs provide an intrinsic value in their stunning natural beauty which attracts both locals and tourists seeking to admire the beauty of this incredibly special ecosystem and reconnect with nature.

What are Corals?

Coral ReefAt its most basic level, a barrier reef is located along a coastline and sustained by the growth of marine organisms called corals which form large colonies upon which other marine life depend. There are two classifications of corals: soft and hard corals. Out of these two classifications come at least 8,000 and up identified species of coral. Soft corals are sessile organisms that do not produce a calcium carbonate skeleton while hard corals are also called reef-building corals because they are responsible for the underwater terrain that creates the ridges, crests, and boulders you see when you snorkel or scuba dive. Hard corals can do this because they excrete a carbonate exoskeleton that supports and protects the sensitive coral polyps living within its walls. Corals are indeed animals, and part of the same phylum Cnidaria as jellyfish and sea anemones. One coral polyp will bond with another polyp and form a larger coral colony. A single coral polyp may be as large as a saucer or smaller than the head of a pin. Millions of polyps working together in a cooperative colony generation after generation create the limestone skeletons that form the framework of the beautiful coral reef we know and love. Makay s Reef 1 web

Broward County’s reef tract is divided into the Inner Reef, ranging from 20-30 feet in depth, the Middle Reef, ranging from 40-60 feet in depth and the Outer Reef, ranging from 50-100 feet in depth. This diverse range of reef habitat allow for an abundance of marine organisms to flourish.

Each of these coral polyps look like a little animal comprised of tentacles, a mouth and a gut (similar to an upside-down jellyfish!) Most corals are passive feeders, meaning they roll their tentacles out and rely on the water current to bring plankton their way. Most corals also get nutrition from microscopic algae (zooxanthellae) living within their tissue. The coral polyps are generally nocturnal feeders and are provided sugars made by their photosynthetic zooxanthellae during the day. That is why some scuba divers love to dive at night as they can witness the polyps with their tentacles out feeding on the plankton that rise from the depths of the sea.

Issues Affecting Our Coral Reef

Did you know that our Coral Reefs are in danger? Sadly, our coral reefs are now facing numerous challenges. The largest threat is climate change, followed by pollution from plastics and chemicals, and run-off of excess nutrients from lawns and agriculture. The good news is that because these problems are all man made, if we work harder together, we can ensure that our coral reefs will survive for many more generations to come.

Coral Gardening

NSU Coral NurseryWhat steps would you take to improve the quality of our Coral Reefs?

Nova Southeastern University, located within Fort Lauderdale, has a special Coral Nursery Initiative dedicated to understanding coral ecology, improve coral conservation methods, and promote coral reef restoration and species recovery. They are specifically working with an endangered species of coral called Staghorn coral, growing large colonies in the lab so that they can outplant them later onto the wild reef tract. Staghorn corals are a beautiful orange-hued species of coral which grow much like a tree, branching into arms that resemble an elk’s antlers. Researchers first dive over select reef sites in the ocean to collect small fragments of wild coral which have broken off from natural methods, then take them to the nursery and grow them in controlled conditions. As the coral grows and begins branching out, much like a tree growing branches, students are able to cut off each new branch and insert it onto a disc where it will begin growing as a new “tree” on its own. In this way, they can multiply the coral many times over and increase the number of overall colonies able to be transplanted back to the natural environment. At the same time, they keep a genetic record of the coral, ensuring that there is enough genetic diversity which will allow the coral to be resilient through the many challenges it faces once transplanted back into the ocean. Identifying the genetic makeup of the coral allows scientists to place different coral genes near each other on the reef so that the likelihood of sexual reproduction is increased.

Artificial Reefs

Since 1982, the artificial reef programs of Broward County have placed upwards of 76 artificial reefs on the ocean floor as magnets for fish and reef life. An artificial reef is a manmade, chemically stable structure which is sunk on purpose to attract coral growth and marine life. Artificial reefs are typically constructed using three basic materials: concrete, steel, or limestone boulders. Many artificial reefs deployed are environmentally suitable objects such as ships, barges, oil rigs, concrete culverts, engineered concrete modules, or specially crafted concrete sculptures. These materials are placed at various depths where they quickly become habitat for a bounty of marine organisms. Through the artificial reef program, the County is not only creating additional habitat for various marine organisms and fish but also protecting the reefs as boat anchors can cause physical damage to natural reefs by breaking coral or "uprooting" other attached marine animals. In other words, artificial reefs provide some relief from human-caused reef stressors.Artificial Reef, Shipwreck

Can you guess how many shipwrecks are sunken under water? Today, Greater Fort Lauderdale is home to the largest collection of warm-water wrecks in the Western world. The county alone has over 100 shipwrecks sunken off its waters, with Pompano Beach taking the title of “Wreck Capitol of Florida. The waters off Pompano Beach hold 18 underwater wrecks, with the “Lady Luck” being the last wreck purposefully sunk in July 2016. She sits at a depth of 130 ft. and measures 324 ft. long and 50 ft. wide! Already since her sinking there are reports of stingrays, barracudas, snappers, and coral growth alongside her sides.

Career Corner!

Tour Operator:  Generally speaking, a tour operator has the responsibility to look over the details of a vacation or tour such as hotel, accommodation, meals, activities, transportation etc. Tour operators provide travel guides, escorting services and arrange all travel related needs and wants.  In regards to this lesson and the Florida Reef Tract, we want to highlight local tour operators such as for a scuba or snorkeling tour.  A tour operator sells the product that they themselves create. They do not sell anybody else's packages, they sell only their own creations.  So, in this case, a local tour operator may own a boat and market to local hotels as well as residents who want to go out for a "tour" on their boat.  

Lesson Questions: 

1. What are the two classifications of corals?

2. What is the difference between a soft and hard coral?

3. What is the economic impact in Broward county of the Florida Reef tract?

4. What percentage of total marine species are found on coral reefs globally?

5. Name three benefits of coral reefs to Broward County.

6. What are the ways in which coral feed?

7. What is the primary focus of coral gardening?

8. What are the benefits to creating artificial reefs?