Photos Document Coral Forest Annihilation In the 1970s and '80s, scientists took 70,000 photos of an ancient coral forest off the coast of Florida. Some of the deep sea coral, thousands of years old, reached 100 feet high. But fishing trawlers have smashed most of that forest to pieces.
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Photos Document Coral Forest Annihilation

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Photos Document Coral Forest Annihilation

Photos Document Coral Forest Annihilation

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

NPR's John Nielsen has more.

JOHN NIELSEN: One of those biologists was John Reed of the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution. He remembers the dive he made late one afternoon in the spring of 1976.

JOHN REED: Distance is about 300 foot of water and is kind of twilight, everything is kind of gray and blue. And all of a sudden up ahead of me, I saw this giant, white structure looming up off the bottom, 60, 80-foot tall.

NIELSEN: It was a ridge made up of several thousand years worth of white, deepwater corals known as oculina. Reed says it looked vaguely like a bunch of bright white, leafless fruit trees. Fish and other sea life buzzed around the corals like a cloud.

REED: And as far as we know, this is the only place in the world where this type of coral forms massive reefs that are up to 100-feet tall, and they grow along the shelf-edge break of central and eastern Florida.

NIELSEN: Unfortunately, Reed says that left all the other reefs in this system vulnerable to shrimp trawlers that drag heavy nets with big steel doors on them back and forth through the underwater forests.

REED: So imagine going over a fragile colony of porcelain-like coral, one pass would destroy thousands of years of growth.

NIELSEN: Six years ago, Reed went back into the water to find out what had happened to his reefs. He climbed into a tiny submarine, went back to the places where he'd taken those old pictures and took new ones. Then he carried the before and the after pictures back to his labs.

REED: And viewed them under microscope to figure out how much coral lived there in the 1970s and how much coral was still alive today.

NIELSEN: It took him years.

REED: What I saw devastated me. Instead of a 60-foot mound covered with thickets of thriving coral, I saw 60-foot mound of rubble. Every coral head was crushed to little pieces the size of my finger. I mean, I almost cried.

NIELSEN: Margot Stiles, a marine biologist with the nonprofit Oceania, says the photos also show exactly what's been lost.

MARGOT STILES: When you look at the areas that are untrawled, there are little fish sticking their heads out from between the branches and cute sort of mini-lobsters that are clicking their claws at the camera. And then you look at the trawled photos and you can recognize little pieces of the branches, and they're lying flat on this muddy bottom that stretches off out of your field of view into darkness.

NIELSEN: John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.

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