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By Theresa Pinto, Contributing Reporter

MIAMI BEACH, FLORIDA – Last week, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) released a report on the value of U.S. corals, in response to billions of dollars’ worth of coastal damage and flooding hazards to coastal communities in recent years.

Preservation of Coral Reefs Could Save the U.S. Nearly $2 Billion Annually, Miami Beach, Miami, Floria, News
Jennifer Stein, FWC biologist, places a brain coral into a mesh collection bag as part of a coral rescue mission ahead of the disease front in the Lower Florida Keys, photo by FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.

The value they come up with is an annual “flood risk reduction provided by U.S. coral reefs [of] more than 18,000 lives and $1.805 billion in 2010 U.S. dollars.” The report was released in collaboration with the University of California Santa Cruz, The Nature Conservancy, and with partial funding from the U.S. Department of Defense.

Coral reefs are a first line of defense to coastal degradation and the report ‘Rigorously Valuing the Role of U.S. Coral Reefs in Coastal Hazard Risk Reduction’ attempts to valuate these “natural defenses,” in contrast to the more traditionally constructed defenses, such as seawalls, so that policymakers can consider their economic value in local adaptation planning measures.

For Miami Beach, the coral reefs specifically help reduce wave energy from hurricanes and other storms, while preventing beach erosion.

Just off the coast of Miami Beach, the third largest barrier reef officially called the South Florida Reef Tract (SFRT), is struggling for existence. In 2014, a mysterious bacterial infection began spreading in the reef, with Virginia Key as epicenter and has since spread past the tip of Key West. Scientists call the disease Stony Coral Tissue Loss and with a 95 percent mortality rate, biologists equate the devastation to a forest fire

SFRT is not alone, with estimates of thirty percent of coral reefs worldwide dying off due to a combination of coral bleaching and other human-induced reasons. Moreover, treatment is not often possible. NOAA has been working on a treatment plan for SFRT since 2015.

Earlier this year, state and local agencies in coordination with researchers and nonprofits began the Coral Rescue Project, attempting to create a Noah’s Ark of the dying reef. Coral specimens are collected ahead of the die-off and sent to coral labs as far as Texas and Iowa. However it is too soon to know if the network of coral lab “zoos” work for the future of coral reefs.

“Restoration of the most resilient species of corals and the strongest genetic individuals of these species will be key to the future of reefs here in Florida,” says Sarah Fangman, Superintendant of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

A map of the Stony Coral Tissue loss, Miami Beach, Miami, Florida, News
A map of the Stony Coral Tissue loss, image provided by Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Yet restoration is expensive and often interferes with human development or recreation. However, research has shown that Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)—restoration areas set aside for marine life—are most successful in restoring coral ecosystems.

In 2014, the UN called for thirty percent of the world’s oceans to be set aside as “no-take” zones and in 2016, they strongly recommended putting a process in place to designate MPAs under the new Ocean Agreement. Recognizing that the impacts of climate change and sea-level rise will imperil the future of the oceans, the international community called for “bold political action.”

With the USGS survey, if and when Miami Beach or other coastal communities in South Florida decide to set aside MPAs, to protect any remaining parts of the SFRT or any areas under restoration, policymakers will have the economic data available to make equivalent assessments of coral reef defenses in their planning.

As geologist and lead author of the report Curt Storlazzi told WLRN, “With this, we can show that [reefs] protect people and lives and infrastructure.”

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