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Monday, September 21, 2015

The Heat is On--Divers Can Help Monitor Coral Bleaching

STINAPA and the Bonaire National Marine Park are asking divers for their assistance and cooperation during the next months, as seawater temperatures heat up.  NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch has just added the ABC Islands (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao) to their Coral Bleaching Warning areas. 

On Bonaire, divers are asked to report any suspected bleaching by submitting an image to STINAPA (marinepark@stinapa.org) along with the following information:
◾Dive Site
◾Depth
◾Severity of bleaching
◾Date
◾Anything else that might be relevant.

Divers are further asked to be especially careful during this time to avoid any contact with the reef, as the corals can be extremely vulnerable.  Be sure to control buoyancy and avoid touching corals.

When corals are under stress, often caused by rising sea surface temperatures, the symbiotic relationship between the corals and their zooxanthellae (unicellular algae) breaks down. The zooxanthellae, which give pigments to the corals, slowly leave causing the coral to become paler and paler. In severe bleaching events, all of the zooxanthellae leave and the coral becomes white, thus the term bleaching. On coral reefs, zooxanthellae contribute food in the form of sugars to their coral. When corals bleach, they are not getting enough energy. Coral may live for several weeks in this condition, but if the stressor doesn’t go away (i.e., if the sea surface temperature doesn’t decrease), then the coral will slowly starve to death. If however, the stressor does go away, the zooxanthellae may repopulate the corals and the corals may survive. It is thought, however, that corals are more prone to disease shortly after recovering from a bleaching event.


Caption:  Comparison of healthy (left), paling (middle), and bleached (right) brain coral, Colpophyllia natans.
Image: Mote Marine Laboratory

Bleaching is often a result of elevated sea surface temperatures but may also be caused by chemical pollutants, high light levels, exposure to air, or other stressors. An extremely severe coral bleaching event occurred in the coral triangle in the Pacific Ocean in 1998 due to high sea surface temperatures. Similarly, the Caribbean suffered an extreme bleaching event in 2005, where some reefs lost as many as 30% of their shallow corals.


Caption:  Caution: If the coral is complete white and the surface looks damaged or abraded, then it’s probably parrotfish biting instead of bleaching.

To help provide more information into how a bleaching event can affect Bonaire’s corals, Caren Eckrich (a biologist with STINAPA), will be giving a lecture titled, “Coral Bleaching, Disease and Parrotfish Biting – What’s What on the Reef.” In her presentation, she will discuss a short history of recent bleaching events, the causes and biology of bleaching, and how to identify bleaching. She will discuss other disturbances such as parrotfish biting, disease, etc. that are often confused with bleaching and end with a short description of STINAPA’s monitoring protocol.  This free, public presentation will take place at CIEE’s headquarters at Kaya Gobernador N. Debrot #26 on Thursday, September 24th, 2015 from 7:00 to 8:00 PM.

(Sources:  STINAPA, CIEE)

Posted by Susan Davis on September 21, 2015 at 3:13pm AST
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