A team including former special-operations military divers plunged into the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to help start the coral reef recovery process after Hurricane Irma.
Force Blue, a coral-restoration organization of veterans skilled in underwater work, joined state and federal sanctuary staff members to “perform some triage on the priority coral species like staghorn and elkhorn,” sanctuary Superintendent Sarah Fangman said Tuesday.
“They’re out there in the water with our divers, helping turn some massive coral heads upright that could be hundreds of years old,” Fangman said. “This stabilizes the corals and gives them a better chance of survival.”
During a 10-day period ending Oct. 19, sanctuary staff and other scientists surveyed “more than 50 sites from Biscayne Bay to the Marquesas” as part of an initial assessment of Hurricane Irma’s effect on the only living barrier reef in the United States.
“It seems like the most severe impacts were concentrated where you would expect, in the Lower and Middle Keys where the hurricane eye wall came through,” Fangman said. “But even within those areas, there are pockets of worse and pockets of better. Irma was quite mysterious.”
The assessment by 16 staff researchers found the Sept. 10 Category 4 hurricane caused “widespread damage to sponges from storm-force waves, fast-moving debris, and heavy sediment deposits,” says a summary statement.
“Preliminary reports from the team found extensive shifting of sand and heavy sediment accumulation, which can smother and prevent corals from getting enough sunlight, as well as some structural damage to individual corals and the reef itself,” the report says.
The summary notes that even the 10-day effort “covered only a small portion of the Florida Reef Tract, which stretches approximately 360 miles from Dry Tortugas National Park west of the Florida Keys to the St. Lucie Inlet in Martin County.”
“We’re removing debris and moving some coral from underneath the sand,” Fangman said. “It’s going to take a while for all the sediment to settle back down.”
Dawn Ross, a dive instructor with the Looe Key Dive Center on Big Pine Key, said she was encouraged by her first look at the renowned Lower Keys dive site.
“There were not as many fish and [underwater] visibility was about 7 feet,” Ross said, “but I was pleasantly surprised. The branching elkhorn and staghorn seem to be intact, from what we could check. We did see some sergeant majors and grunts, and one shark. The mooring buoys are still there.”
“My dive captain and I both agreed, we don’t have to leave the Keys,” Ross said. “The reef is there and the fish will be back. We still have our jobs.”
Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206