On July 14, 2017, Netflix released “Chasing Coral,” a documentary detailing the detrimental effects of coral bleaching on the world’s oceans. Mote’s Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research and Restoration in Summerland Key hosted screening of the documentary that drew a standing room only crowd. Following the screening, Mote was pleased to have Zack Rago, one of the key cast members of “Chasing Coral,” visit and tour the facility.
If you’re interested in learning more about the documentary or what Mote does to restore and protect coral reefs, please see the FAQ below.
What do Mote scientists think of the film “Chasing Coral,” which debuted July 14, 2017, on Netflix?
The film provides an introduction to coral reefs — the oceans’ “rainforests” — and some major challenges they face around the world. In particular, the filmmakers focus on coral bleaching and death caused by increased water temperatures, which are driven in large part by human activities adding carbon dioxide to Earth’s atmosphere.
Bleaching occurs when a stressed coral loses the beneficial algae in its tissues. The symbiotic (win-win) relationship between the coral and algae is critical for the coral’s survival. Without these special algae, the coral loses color and ultimately dies if conditions do not improve.
Bleaching is one excellent focus for a documentary, as it is one of the most visible and prevalent challenges that coral reef scientists, resource managers and conservationists are working to understand and address.
At the same time, it’s important to note that bleaching doesn’t happen alone. Corals face multiple stressors at once.
Coral diseases are a major concern, and some diseases increase in corals already stressed by warmer water temperatures. Beyond increasing temperatures, excess carbon dioxide can also enter the ocean and cause a chemical change called ocean acidification (OA). OA can weaken the hard, calcium carbonate structures of multiple marine animals. In corals, it could mean the dissolution and loss of their hard skeletons. Think of osteoporosis in human bones.
In future documentaries of this nature, we encourage coverage of potential solutions to the challenges facing reefs, particularly science-based efforts to restore coral reefs. Mote Marine Laboratory and our partners are implementing some of the largest reef restoration efforts to date, and our scientists are working to find and selectively restore genetic varieties of coral that are resilient to environmental changes (more details below).
Have Florida corals experienced 80-90 percent losses, as mentioned in the film?
This scientific journal publication provides a reference for the wider Caribbean basin overall, as of 2003:
Long-Term Region-Wide Declines in Caribbean Corals
Author(s): Toby A. Gardner, Isabelle M. Côté, Jennifer A. Gill, Alastair Grant, Andrew R. Watkinson Source: Science, New Series, Vol. 301, No. 5635 (Aug. 15, 2003), pp. 958-960
Published by: American Association for the Advancement of Science http://portal.nceas.ucsb.edu/working_group/valuation-of-coastal-habitats/meta-analysis/papers-for-meta-analysis-database/coral-maybe/gardner-et-al-03.pdf
(See a map in the study showing areas discussed, including Florida Keys sites.)
Excerpt from the paper’s abstract: "We report a massive region-wide decline of corals across the entire Caribbean basin, with the average hard coral cover on reefs being reduced by 80%, from about 50% to 10% cover, in three decades."
What potential effect does human-related climate change have on corals?
Earth’s climate has always experienced natural changes, and in the latest part of our planet’s history, humans have contributed notably to climate change, particularly through emissions of carbon dioxide. The current rate of temperature increase is particularly concerning, as it is happening faster than evolution, coral migration, and other possible compensatory mechanisms. Climate change has significantly affected reefs, with widespread coral death around the world.
If corals go extinct, other marine habitat types such as macro-algae or algal-bacteria slime or sponges may replace them. It is not for science to decide that one ecosystem is “bad” and another is “good,” nor that by extension climate change impacts that force corals into extinction are “harmful.” What is certain is that if coral reefs go extinct, we lose our “rainforests of the sea,” we lose an enormous level of marine biodiversity, and the State of Florida alone will lose over 70,000 jobs and the foundation of a $8.5 billion annual economy. Science can inform society of the objective facts surrounding impacts to our oceans from climate change, but society must decide how this “harm” will be considered in the diverse balance of desires for quality of life and the economic vitality of our nation and the world.
One scientist in the film says average projections of sea surface warming suggest that oceans could become too warm for coral reefs in 25 years. Is that true?
It’s clear that our changing climate is significantly challenging corals — in particular, the tropical hard corals that build reefs and create entire ecosystems around them. Temperatures will continue to increase, but scientists acknowledge that projecting the amount of future temperature change and future impacts to coral reefs comes with some uncertainty. This is in part because humans will continue making decisions about carbon dioxide emissions and other activities that impact the environment, and corals occupy various habitats — some warmer or cooler than others. The scientist in the film is describing one potential projection, but this topic is very complex and research and discussion continue. You can learn more about the findings and conversation of the scientific community through reports published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. www.ipcc.ch
Is the value of coral reefs accurately portrayed in the film?
One scientist in the film mentions that, if we lose coral reefs, we affect a quarter of the ocean. Indeed, the scientific community estimates that coral reefs, despite covering less than 1 percent of the ocean floor, support at least 25 percent of marine species. Their nickname, “rainforests of the sea,” is valid.
Other scientists in the film share that corals provide complex structure that encourages biodiversity of marine life, the way a city can serve as a bustling cultural metropolis for humans. This is a useful metaphor for the value of reefs.
As mentioned in the film, reefs fulfill basic needs — serving as sources of food fisheries and new medicines, while buffering the impacts of storms on coastlines. They are also critical to human culture and quality of life. Florida’s reefs are estimated to value $8.5 billion and generate over 70,000 jobs.
How did recent years of bad bleaching affect corals in Mote’s main research, monitoring and restoration areas in the Florida Keys and Caribbean?
Florida’s shallow coral reefs in the Dry Tortugas to Martin County experienced mass coral bleaching in 2014 and 2015. In 2016 these reefs experienced mild to moderate bleaching, but some areas had widespread coral disease, according to the Florida Reef Resilience Program (FRRP). It is possible that the two years of mass bleaching caused lingering stress that increased corals’ vulnerability to disease. In 2016, multiple FRRP-monitoring sites had prevalent disease, with half the worst-affected sites in the Upper Keys.
The latest FRRP monitoring efforts covered 162 sites in August through October, 2016. Partners included The Nature Conservancy, Mote Marine Laboratory, Broward County, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Miami-Dade County, National Park Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Nova Southeastern University and University of Miami.
Scientists in Mote’s Coral Reef Monitoring & Assessment Program covered the Lower Keys sites, equipped with early alerts of reef conditions from volunteers in the Keys-wide, Mote-led programs BleachWatch and C-OCEAN. All sources suggested that summer 2016 generally spared Lower Keys corals.
How are Florida’s reefs doing today?
The next systematic survey by the Florida Reef Resilience Program is coming up. For the time being, you can see reports from the Mote programs BleachWatch and C-OCEAN — carried out in coordination with NOAA’s Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and powered by citizen-science volunteers — at www.mote.org/bleachwatch and www.mote.org/cocean.
According to the July 3, 2017, BleachWatch report:
Based on climate predictions, current conditions, and field observations, the threat for mass coral bleaching within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is currently LOW.
A total of 29 BleachWatch Observer reports were received in June 2017, with only 3 reports indicating isolated coral colonies exhibiting signs of paling (a precursor to bleaching). The remaining 26 reports indicated that no significant signs of coral bleaching were observed.
How is Australia’s Great Barrier Reef doing after the bleaching events shown in the film?
The Great Barrier Reef is not Mote’s primary area of focus. We suggest you check with a more direct source of that information:
ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies James Cook University Townsville Queensland 4811 Australia
Phone: 61 7 4781 4000 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
What are Mote scientists doing to help coral reefs?
Mote Marine Laboratory’s campus on Summerland Key, Florida, is a hotbed of collaborative marine science, education and conservation designed to address grand challenges facing our oceans – emphasizing coral reefs.
In May 2017, Mote opened its new Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research and Restoration (IC2R3) at its existing Summerland Key campus. This major base of operations represents a launching platform for global coral reef restoration in our lifetimes. We envision self-sustaining “rainforests of the sea” for our children’s future and beyond.
There, Mote scientists lead groundbreaking studies of coral disease, climate change (warming water temperatures and ocean acidification), and coral resilience needed for restoration.
They are growing and outplanting thousands of fragments of staghorn coral, a threatened branching coral, and reef-building species of brain, boulder and star corals, while studying their resilience to environmental change so we can restore strains most likely to survive.
Mote scientists have restored more than 20,000 corals to Florida’s reefs. Some restored corals have even begun to sexually reproduce on their own. We successfully developed a coral “re-skinning” process designed to restore large areas of brain, boulder and star corals in one to three years – instead of the hundreds or thousands of years that might be required for natural recovery.
Mote also recently received a $500,000 appropriation from the Florida Legislature to work with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Department of Environmental Protection to restore approximately 25,000 corals in the Florida Keys from Bahia Honda to Key West, starting in late summer 2017 and continuing for about a year.
In 2016 we began the first step in a multi-year initiative with The Nature Conservancy to expand reef research, with the goal to restore corals at unprecedented scales in Florida and the Caribbean.
We have assessed multiple threats to corals and their interactions. For instance, peer-reviewed research by a Mote scientist demonstrated that white pox disease is likelier to affect elkhorn corals if waters warmed and if the coral colonies were larger or more genetically susceptible. A new peer-reviewed publication by our scientists on June 1, 2017, demonstrates the complex interaction between a coral disease called black band and acidified water. The paper suggests that low pH levels projected with ocean acidification, though threatening to multiple reef organisms, may have the surprising effect of slowing this coral disease’s progression under some conditions.
As mentioned above, Mote helps to document heat-driven coral bleaching in the Florida Keys through our citizen-science volunteer programs BleachWatch and C-OCEAN, and our scientists partner in the rigorous reef-monitoring program called the Florida Reef Resiliency Program.
Our wetlab experiments have assessed the resistance and susceptibility of different genetic strains of staghorn coral to climate change, disease and ocean acidification. The research is ongoing and results are preliminary, but early findings suggest that some genetic strains may fare better than others amid environmental stress.
Exposure experiments are assessing impacts of organic compounds such as permethrin (from some pesticides), oxybenzone (from some sunscreens), Bisphenol A (from some plastics), and glyphosate (a type of herbicide) on coral health and disease.
How can people help coral reefs?
Learn more about coral reefs from scientific sources. Join Mote for a live-streaming online conversation with our staff scientists Dr. Erinn Muller and Dr. Emily Hall to discuss their research and “Chasing Corals” on July 28. Check www.seatrek.tv/live for specifics. Floridians: Choose the Protect Our Reefs license plate (www.motereefplate.com) to support coral research and restoration.
Anyone, anywhere, can contribute to Mote’s coral restoration efforts for as little as $10-15 per coral via Mote’s project on Crowdrise, Restoring Coral Reefs in Our Lifetime, or by visiting www.mote.org/support, choosing to donate, and selecting “coral reef research and restoration” from the drop-down menu.
Use ENERGY STAR light bulbs and appliances to reduce carbon emissions.
Avoid using herbicides or insecticides before rainstorms – they can wash into the sea and affect corals or other marine life. Also, plant vegetation to buffer runoff.
Choose sustainable seafood and other eco-friendly ocean products. Don’t buy coral jewelry.
Avoid damaging reefs when boating. Boaters should: learn safe boating skills; study charts; stay in marked channels; heed signs and buoys; when unsure of depth, idle with the bow down and motor tilted up; wear polarized sunglasses to see brown and white water that mean shallows; use mooring buoys or anchor carefully in sand — not in coral; discharge all sewage at pump-out facilities.
Divers should: never touch reefs; avoid disturbing sand with fins, as sand can smother corals; don’t collect animals, plants or even dead corals — leave the ecosystem exactly as it is.
Are Sarasota and/or cities in the Florida Keys making the clean energy pledge shown at the end of the movie (as of May 2017)?
After “Chasing Coral” was completed, the City of Sarasota authorized a proposal to transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. Read about this decision, finalized in June 2017, from the Sierra Club: http://content.sierraclub.org/press-releases/2017/06/sarasota-florida-commits-transition-100-renewable-energy
Sarasota was the second Florida city to make the commitment, after St. Petersburg, according to news reports.
Mote emphasizes sustainable practices at its Florida campuses. The newest highlight: Mote’s Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research & Restoration in the Florida Keys features an eco-friendly design including 30.1 kilowatt solar panels, a rainwater capture system and high-efficiency heating and cooling. Our application is in progress to designate this facility as the first LEED Gold facility in Monroe County, Florida.
Mote wasn’t in this film. Why not?
Mote scientists were not asked to be featured in “Chasing Coral,” but we applaud the featured scientists for sharing their knowledge to raise awareness of major ecological changes occurring in our oceans. While Mote scientists work to document changes on reefs, we are especially focused on finding and implementing solutions to address the challenges facing reefs (more details below).
Mote hosted a screening of “Chasing Coral” that drew a standing-room-only crowd on July 14 (the Netflix premiere date) to Mote’s Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research and Restoration (IC2R3) on Summerland Key, Florida. We were thrilled, but not surprised, at the turnout. It’s empowering to know that our Keys community cares deeply about the future of coral reefs.
Mote scientists want the world to know about the changes affecting coral reefs and the science behind innovative strategies to restore reefs. In recent years, Mote scientists have shared their coral-focused knowledge in many national media stories, from the New York Times and NBC’s Today to The Atlantic and NPR’s Science Friday. We believe strongly in translating and transferring objective knowledge gained through our unbiased research to help the public and government officials make informed decisions.