Climate Change Could Ruin Florida's $5.5 Billion Reef Economy

Thursday, Jan 7, 2010  |  Updated 6:17 PM EDT
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Climate Change Could Ruin Florida's $5.5 Billion Reef Economy

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SARASOTA, Florida, December 3, 2008 (ENS) - A new analysis of economic activity generated by Florida's coral reefs finds that some 70,000 jobs and more than $5.5 billion in business in the state could disappear if climate change destroys the reefs.

"A business-as-usual approach to climate change could mean a lot less business for Florida," said Jerry Karnas, Florida project director at Environmental Defense Fund, which commissioned the report, "Corals and Climate Change: Florida's Natural Treasures at Risk."

Florida encompasses the only shallow water coral reefs in the continental United States. Like coral reefs worldwide, Florida's reefs are besieged by environmental problems.

For instance, a federal government study released in November confirms significant ocean acidification across much of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. As oceans absorb the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, they become more acidic, reducing the ability of corals to produce their calcium carbonate skeletons.

This affects individual corals and the ability of the reef to maintain a positive balance between reef building and reef erosion.

The government study supports other findings that ocean acidification is likely to reduce coral reef growth to critical levels before the end of this century unless humans slash carbon dioxide emissions. While ocean chemistry across the region is currently deemed adequate to support coral reefs, it is rapidly changing as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels rise.

"The study demonstrates a strong natural seasonal variability in ocean chemistry in waters around the Florida Keys that could have important consequences for how these reefs respond to future ocean acidification," says NOAA's Dwight Gledhill, PhD, lead author of the study.

Research by Professor Andrew Langdon of the University of Miami, who contributed to the Environmental Defense report, also shows that as oceans absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, they become more acidic, which stunts coral growth and impairs reproduction.

The groupers, snappers, jacks, angelfish, and spiny lobsters that thrive on coral reefs make Florida a destination for millions of fishermen every year - and back up Florida's claim to be the Fishing Capital of the World. On the commercial side, catches of reef-associated species in South Florida account for $158 million in annual sales.

Terry Gibson, the fishing editor of "Outdoor Life" magazine and a co-author of the Environmental Defense climate change report with University of Miami Professor Hal Wanless, says that "from scuba diving in the Keys to charter fishing boats in Miami-Dade to commercial fishing in Martin County, reef-related sales amount to more than $5.5 billion each year."

But climate change driven by unchecked greenhouse gas emissions is stressing coral reefs and putting the Florida economy at risk.

Wanless says, "a central culprit in the decline of coral reefs is unchecked emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, largely from burning fossil fuels like coal and oil."

Research by Florida scientists is providing new insights into how CO2 and other greenhouse gases hurt coral reefs. First, global warming leads to warmer oceans – which cause harmful coral "bleaching" and make corals more vulnerable to diseases now visible on many of Florida's coral reefs.

As the report describes, innovative research by Dr. Kimberly Ritchie of the MOTE Marine Lab in Sarasota helps explain why - during times of warmer ocean water, corals lose their ability to use natural antibiotics to protect themselves from disease.

EDF's Karnas said quick federal action to limit greenhouse gas emissions can help protect Florida's reefs and the state's economy. "We need Congress to cap global warming pollution. This report shows that doing nothing is the worst option for Florida's economy."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.

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