Perspectives from the 2nd Annual Reef Resilience Conference in Fort Lauderdale, Florida

I have just returned from an intense two-day conference about coral resilience that brought together a diverse set of scientists, students, reef users, NGO representatives, private businesses, and socioeconomic experts from around the world. The meeting was a follow-up to the first Reef Resilience Conference held in 2008. Being relatively new to the world of coral conservation and restoration, I found the conference extremely educational, an ideal opportunity to learn the most up-to-date scientific thinking about coral health and network and have in-depth conversations with key people who will be involved with my project over the next two years. As I have shared in past blogs, my project is exploring ways to create sustainable, long-term financing for coral reef conservation working with the Alex C. Walker Foundation, Georgia Aquarium, Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) and the Property & Environment Research Center.

“Resilience” describes coral colonies or populations that withstand disturbance without undergoing significant mortality and/or that recover quickly from a disturbance. In recent years, the idea has been advanced by scientists and NGOs. Globally, corals are in decline, but especially so in the Caribbean region where some species (e.g. elkhorn and staghorn) have declined by 80-90% since the 1980s. Unfortunately, based on empirical evidence shared by conference attendees, coral cover in the Caribbean region now only ranges from 5-20% (depending on the area). The massive decline is in response to anthropogenic and environmental disturbances. Some cities/counties in Florida still discharge sewage effluent out to sea, up to 300 million gallons/day. White pox disease, which affects elkhorn corals, has been proven to be a direct result of human sewage, but the pathogens that cause it can be mitigated through advanced wastewater treatment (e.g. tertiary level) before release ( http://www.earthtimes.org/pollution/link-floridas-toilets-coral-killing-white-pox-disease-proved/1264/).

Despite some scary projections shared at the conference (e.g. that ocean acidification could eventually cause coral reefs to dissolve if global CO2 levels are not reduced and local stressors are not decreased), I am incredibly energized to go out and do everything I can to save coral reefs. Every individual I spoke with and who presented has this incredible feeling of hope, even those who dove the Florida Keys and other areas before massive global coral die off. One comment from Billy Causey, the Southeast Regional Director for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), really struck home for me. When asked about the changes to corals in the Florida Keys, Billy shared, “It breaks my heart when I dive on Looe Key; it affects me. Each dive I look for something that gives me hope for the future.” Billy’s uplifting statements really helped to shape the tone of the conference.

Several presenters shared some websites for further information. They are:
http://frrp.org/ (details about Florida’s Reef Resilience Program)
http://cakex.org (climate adaption knowledge exchange)
http://nature.org/florida (The Nature Conservancy’s Reef Resilience Program)
http://coralrestoration.org and http://adoptacoral.org (CRF’s Coral Restoration and Adoptions Program)

Everyone I spoke with at the conference was incredibly enthusiastic about my idea of bringing non-traditional financing concepts to the marine environment and wished me the best of luck in the endeavor. Special thanks to the following people for taking time to talk with me about coral resilience and market-based potential solutions: Billy Causey (NOAA), Ken Nedimyer and Kevin Gaines (CRF), Kent Edwards (Florida Department of Environmental Protection), Chris Bergh, James Byrne, Meaghan Johnson (The Nature Conservancy), Dr. Peter Mumby (University of Queensland), Grace Johns (Hazen and Sawyer), Dr. David Wachenfeld (Great Barrier Marine Park Authority), Tom Twyford (West Palm Beach Fishing Club), Mike Beach (Captain R.J. Diving Ventures, Inc.), Ramon de Leon (Bonaire National Marine Park), Maria Estevanez, Andrew Baker, Flavia Tonioli and Tara Dolan (University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science – RSMAS), Rick MacPherson (Coral Reef Alliance), Nelso Sanchez (Unlimited Divers), Aric Bickel (I.M. Systems Group, Inc.), Nikole Ordway (Force-E), David Vaughn (Mote Marine Laboratory), Diana Aranda (National Park Service), Wendy Wood-Derrer and Amanda Costaregni (NOVA Southeastern University).

For more perspectives and quotes from the conference, checkout my Twitter feed @BrettWHowell and that of Rick MacPherson, Program Director for Coral Reef Alliance (@rmacpherson). We both did a lot of live tweeting that helps to capture the flow and discussion of the conference.

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