Spectrum News 13: Soto Works to Save Florida's Coral Reefs

February 28, 2020
In The News

As scientists work frantically to prevent the spread of stony coral tissue loss disease across the Florida Reef Tract, they acknowledge more funding and resources are needed.

A crew of researchers from Nova Southeastern University are the first line of defense in the battle against this deadly disease. The scientists have been treating the coral already infected with a paste combined with amoxicillin.

“That's enough motivation to keep you going for all hours,” said Michelle Dobler, a member of the research team.

Dobler is the newest addition to this small team, working to treat as many “patients” as quickly as possible.

“We can make our tanks last between one and a half to two hours. My team does way better on that. They go about two hours or longer. I'm about an hour and a half, but we come right back on the boat. Grab a little bit of water. We hop back in,” she explained.

While the antibiotic treatments have been effective, there’s a lot of territory to cover.

“I think our big limitation right now is manpower. Having four people treating the entirety of the Florida Keys is kind of ludicrous,” said Karen Neely, a coral ecologist at Nova Southeastern University and the leader of the group.

“Just having the money and the people to come out and be able to go to more sites and to treat more corals is really, I think, the only way that we're going to be able to have any impact on a lot of these reefs in the short term,” she explained.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection provided funding totaling $341,311 this fiscal year for the project. Since the team is only 1.5 years into the intervention, there’s a lot of uncertainty about future funding. All future work is contingent on the state budget each fiscal year.

“Every year we have to get refunded. And right up until about the week before, we're not sure if we're going to have a job again next year to keep doing this,” said Kevin Macaulay, a research assistant at Nova Southeastern University.

“Having a little more stable funding and maybe even a little bit more might be helpful,” he added.

The federal government provided over $26 million to restore coral reefs across the country, of that nearly $3.5 million went directly to the state of Florida. The state chipped in too, bringing the total amount of funding to $5 million. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle recognize that’s not nearly enough.

“It’s absolutely critical we get this reauthorization and millions of federal dollars to help Florida,” said Rep. Darren Soto (D) Florida 9th District.

Soto and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) are working to revive the Coral Reef Conservation Act, which expired 20 years ago. They introduced legislation last year that would provide $160 million of federal funding for coral reefs for the next five years and would reinstate the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force. However, it’s unclear if these bills will make it to the floor in either chamber.

“It’s not really an issue that we struggle to find support for, it’s more been a problem of getting things passed, anything passed up here. For example, the funding is part of a funding bill that right now is tied up in broader issues that have nothing to do with coral reefs,” Rubio said in an interview with Spectrum News.

“The great thing about the Florida Keys is that a lot of members of the Senate, in my experience, have spent time there. So, even if they’re not from Florida, they’ve been down there, some of them have even snorkeled off those reefs and understand exactly what I’m talking about so that is very helpful,” Rubio said.

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Florida) also acknowledges that the federal government needs to be a partner in helping restore the coral reefs.

“We all, nationwide, we all enjoy Florida. Last year, we had 126 million tourists that came to Florida. We all have to be involved in protecting what we have,” Scott said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration too is working with private and public partners to raise $100 million dollars to combat the crisis in the Florida Keys, but they have not met that fundraising goal just yet.

“We need money. We need bodies. We need regulatory approval. We need to do all of these things quickly. This is a disease epidemic and every minute we waste is a minute that it's just getting that much worse,” Neely said.