A before and after shot of an oculina coral reef off Cape Canaveral, Fla. The image on the left was taken several decades ago; the image on the right, taken in 2001, shows the reef pulverized by trawling.
A before and after shot of an oculina coral reef off Cape Canaveral, Fla. The image on the left was taken several decades ago; the image on the right, taken in 2001, shows the reef pulverized by trawling. John Reed
Courtesy John Reed
The location of the oculina reefs off the east coast of Florida.
The location of the oculina reefs off the east coast of Florida. Courtesy John Reed
A healthy oculina reef. NOAA
When ancient forests are cut down, there's usually a big public uproar — unless it's a coral forest at the bottom of an ocean. In those cases, hardly anybody sees what's being lost. As a result, it's easy to forget what's gone.
But that's not what has happened to a set of ruined coral reefs found off the coast of Florida, thanks to 70,000 underwater photos taken back in the 1970s and 1980s. For decades these pictures have been sitting in the office of John Reed, a senior scientist of the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution. He and the late Robert Avent found and mapped these deep water reefs 30 years ago.
"I was (swimming) at about 300 feet, and the water was grey and blue," Reed said. "And all of a sudden, I saw this giant white structure looming up off the bottom, 60 to 80 feet tall."
It was a ridge made up of several thousand years' worth of white deep-water corals, known to scientists as oculina. At the time, these kinds of ridges stretched for roughly 90 miles through deep waters off the east coast of Florida. Reed says all these ridges were covered with corals that looked like bright white leafless fruit trees. Fish and other sea life buzzed around them like a cloud.
Thrilled by their discovery, Reed and Avent photographed "every square foot" of the deep-water coral forest. Those photos helped convince government officials to ban fishing near a few of the reefs. Unfortunately all the other reefs were vulnerable to shrimp trawlers that dragged giant nets with steel doors on them through the fragile coral forests.
"One pass would destroy several thousand years' worth of growth," said Reed.
By the late 1990s, it was clear that the reefs had been badly damaged by the trawlers. But nobody knew what the damage looked like or what exactly had been lost. Then, in 2001, Reed climbed into a tiny submarine, went back to the spots where he had helped take all those pictures in the '70s and took a second set of photos. Then he hauled the "before" and "after" pictures into his lab.
Reed spent a good part of the next several years putting before and after photos under a microscope, trying to figure out exactly how many corals had been lost since the 1970s.
"And what I saw devastated me," he says. "Instead of 60-foot reefs, I saw 60-foot mounds of rubble. Nearly every coral reef had been crushed to little pieces the size of his finger.
"I almost cried," he said.
Reed discovered that the only reefs still standing were the ones that were put under protection in the 1980s. His findings were reported in the Bulletin of Marine Science. Coral reef experts say the findings are depressing, but not surprising. They're aware that trawlers have done huge amounts of damage to deep-water reefs in most of the world's oceans.
What's different here is the fantastic trove of photographs that show how quickly reefs like these can be erased. They also show exactly what gets lost when that happens.
"When you look at the untrawled areas, there are lots of little fish sticking their heads out of the corals," said biologist Margot Stiles of the nonprofit group Oceana. "And there are these cute mini-lobsters that are clicking their claws at the camera.
But in the trawled photos, all you can see are "little bits of coral laying flat on the muddy bottom that stretches out of your field of view into the darkness," she said.
Stiles says it's now illegal to fish near the oculina reefs. Scientists are trying to reseed and re-grow them. But oculina corals grow extremely slowly, and for that reason alone it is unlikely that anyone alive today will live long enough to see the reefs return.