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Written by Jim W. Harper -- BT Contributor   
July 2013

For too long, we’ve ignored one of our most precious natural resources, but we can change that

Cbigstock-Scuba-diver-underwater-close-t-39434575oral Reefs 101 for mainland Florida: Here’s the lowdown on what’s out there and what you can do about it.

Where’s the reef? Closer than a Wendy’s restaurant, most likely. From any beach in Miami-Dade County, let your eyes drift east a half-mile or so, then plunge your imagination down about 40 feet. Welcome to the Great Florida Reef.

You can do the same along beaches in Broward, Palm Beach, and even parts of Martin County, because the nearly continuous reef stretches along the mainland for 100 miles north of Miami. This northern portion of Florida’s coral reef is less studied than the longer, southern stretch along the Keys, but a group based in Miami is working to fill in the blanks -- and they want your help.

The Southeast Florida Coral Reef Initiative has launched a public outreach campaign called Our Florida Reefs, and its mission is to get people talking about how to manage the reefs north of the Keys. I am biased in favor of this project, because I helped create Our Florida Reefs (as part of a grant from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection that ended in June).

The project held 12 community meetings across the region in June, including in northern and southern Miami-Dade, to jumpstart a dialogue that will build momentum over the next two years.

The project has given me new clarity regarding one of the nation’s greatest natural resources. South Florida is the only part of the continental U.S. with warm-water coral reefs, and they connect to the vast Atlantic and Caribbean reef systems. Our Florida Reefs could play a major role in revealing how people and our local reefs can coexist, because more people live near them than any other reef system in the world.

These reefs are shockingly close to the approximately 6 million people in urbanized southeastern Florida. All closer to the shoreline than is I-95, some reefs are actually so close to the beach that you can swim to them. Until about 2002, a natural reef existed in the shallows near South Pointe in South Beach, but it has been buried by sand, most likely from beach renourishment projects. Some longtime Miami Beach residents recall catching lobster from this reef.

My friend Luiz Rodrigues, executive director of the Environmental Coalition of Miami and the Beaches, has underwater photos of this former reef, and together he and I are developing plans to create an “artsy” artificial reef in its place. Stay tuned.

What can you do for Our Florida Reefs? Thanks for asking. The project is currently recruiting community representatives to join a task force that will assemble a blueprint of recommendations for the future management of the reefs. We also want everyone with an opinion about local reefs to register an official comment on OurFloridaReefs.org.

Today these reefs are less protected than you might think. While essentially all reefs in the Florida Keys are actively conserved, the same cannot be said for our other South Florida reefs. Certain rules and regulations apply, as in all state waters, but there is no comprehensive protection.

Here in Florida, we have experience with ecosystems that lack protection, and eventually we pay the price. For the Everglades, the price tag of restoration is hovering around $20 billion.

We can do better with Our Florida Reefs, and they are certainly worth it. Our portion alone of the Florida Reef provides 61,000 jobs and produces $5.7 billion annually in sales and income.

Additionally, during hurricane season, it’s hard to overestimate the value of an underwater seawall that slows wave action. Reefs provide that service, among many others, and they look great doing it.

The biggest hurdle for Our Florida Reefs and any oceanic garden is likely the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. Nearly half of South Florida’s residents and visitors don’t even know that coral reefs exist offshore, according to surveys from the Southeast Florida Coral Reef Initiative. This situation is like half of Brazil not knowing about the Amazon rainforest.

We have the rainforest of the sea right in our region’s front yard. We might be forgiven our ignorance, however, because of the beach sand in our eyes. Our beaches -- which include reef sand -- are much more accessible and extensive than beaches in the Keys, but our reefs are less extensive and lack shallow, snorkel-friendly areas. And our economy and society is much more diverse than in the Keys, where the reef is a way of life.

Only recently, maps of the seafloor and surveys of fish have filled in major gaps in our scientific knowledge of our reef region. Plenty of anecdotal evidence exists in the minds of our area’s boaters, divers, and fishers, and now they have a place to share that knowledge: Our Florida Reefs.

When it comes to protecting our local reefs, we can do better, and we must.

 

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