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NOAA: Researchers Assess Florida Keys Coral Health Following Marine Heat Wave

Ben Edmonds, NOAA. 
Mission: Iconic Reefs field team member Cate Gelston, co-lead scientist on the assessment cruise, retrieves a transect tape after completing an outplanted coral health assessment survey.

Florida - Thursday February 15, 2024: A team of researchers from NOAA’s Mission: Iconic Reefs program and partners from Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium and the Coral Restoration Foundation completed a scientific mission yesterday to quantify the impact of 2023’s marine heat wave on corals in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Data from the research cruise will help NOAA and partners understand the extent of the record-high marine temperatures from the summer of 2023 on restored corals — which are nursery-raised and out-planted on the reef — and inform future restoration strategies to increase coral resilience.

Researchers aboard the contracted vessel M/V Makai surveyed 64 locations at five of the seven Mission: Iconic Reef sites – Carysfort Reef, Horseshoe Reef, Sombrero Reef, Looe Key Reef, and Eastern Dry Rocks– to examine the reef-building stony acroporid corals out-planted by the Coral Restoration Foundation, Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium, and Reef Renewal.

This research follows a mission in August that assessed coral health during the height of the marine heat wave and incorporates data about how eight additional weeks of high temperatures affected corals.

Preliminary findings from the latest assessment provide insights into the current state of coral health:

  • Preliminary data indicate that less than 22% of approximately 1,500 staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis) surveyed remain alive.
  • Only the two most northern reefs surveyed, Carysfort Reef and Horseshoe Reef, had any living staghorn coral.
  • Of the five reefs surveyed, live elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata) was found at only three sites: Carysfort Reef, Sombrero Reef in the middle Keys, and Eastern Dry Rocks off Key West.
  • No live staghorn or elkhorn corals were observed at sample areas surveyed at Looe Key Reef in the lower Florida Keys.

All data collected during the assessment is currently undergoing thorough review and analysis.