Experts work to save North America's last living coral reef in the Florida Keys

LOOE KEY, Fla. - If you've been to the Florida Keys you know how important diving is for the economy, but what if there was no coral left? The scary reality of that happening is not far off. Diving is the engine in the Florida Keys driving an economy built on the last living coral reef in North America.

"If we don't have diving, what is there to do in the Keys?" says Capt. Katie McHugh.

She's made the trip to Looe Key every day for four years, and barring weather has taken nearly 25,000 divers and snorkelers a year.

"For the first three years I was here, I would come to the reef and it looked like it snowed down there, everything is just white including the fire coral," says McHugh.

That's not exactly what she expected. It turned out to be an issue isolated only to September when water temperatures rose and stressed the coral. But it's only a fraction of a catastrophic problem that many tourists who dive here don't even know. 

"The big change has been the loss of coral. This reef at Looe Key used to have 70 to 80 percent coral, it's down to 5 percent or less now," says Dr. Brian Lapointe of FAU Harbor Branch.

WPTV's Jay Cashmere dove in for a closer look and found alarming images. Algae covers much of the reef at Looe Key and is the dominate feature. There is barely any coral left. 

In fact, reefs in the Florida Keys have the lowest coral cover in the entire Caribbean region, according to Lapointe. What's worse is the same reef over a decade ago in 2004 thrived and was one of the most attractive reefs in the world full of coral and fish.

"The big hammer has been water quality," says Lapointe.

It's deteriorated so badly that Lapointe, who has studied this particular reef for 34 years, wonders if it will ever return to a fraction of what it was. "We've lost corals, big giant brain corals 6 feet tall or higher that are hundreds of years old."

What is reducing the water quality? Lapointe says there are a number of factors such as Everglades freshwater runoff from Lake Okeechobee which hits Florida Bay and heads right for the reefs. Others stresses include climate change and even spray-on sunscreen. Experts say we can't wait to see if Mother Nature will repair the living reef.

"If we still do nothing more than just wait and hope it comes back we'll probably end up with no coral in 50 to 100 years," says Mote Marine Laboratory Executive Director Dr. David Vaughan.

Vaughan is wasting no time. He's growing coral in tanks. In fact, he has a wild idea. He wants to replant a million corals before he retires and he's well on his way when you consider this: "We're literally bringing back a coral that would have taken 50-100 years to grow from the start and we're doing that in just a couple of years."

Is it the answer to saving a dying priceless resource in the Florida Keys? Only time will tell. But to those who pour their heart and soul into the Looe Key coral reef, the answer is loud and clear.

"We really have to do everything we can to get the water quality right and do everything we can in terms of management to protect this resource," says Lapointe.

For more information on Mote Marine Lab's coral restoration project click here.

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