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Coral smothering 'green tide' seaweed spreading on Florida reefs

PALM BEACH, Fla., Jan. 23--According to recent reports from divers and fishers, the coral-smothering non-native seaweed known as Caulerpa brachypus has now become so thick on reefs in Florida's Palm Beach County, about an hour north of Miami, that it is forcing lobsters and fish away. The species has also now been spotted as far north as Ft. Pierce, Fla., about sixty miles away.

"It can smother just about everything down there," says Dr. Brian Lapointe, a marine ecologist at HARBOR BRANCH, of Caulerpa brachypus. He says the threat it poses is even more alarming than that of other troublesome species he has studied in the area because it is an invasive normally found in the Pacific, but, until a year ago, nowhere in Florida. The species was probably inadvertently released from a saltwater aquarium or from a ship's ballast water. Because it is not native to Florida waters, it has no natural predators, a problem compounded by the fact that the species is especially rugged and able to spread quickly if the nutrients it needs are available. "It can really undergo explosive growth," says Lapointe.

Lapointe believes based on past research that the spread of this and other macroalgae species, in Florida and at many troubled reefs around the globe, is driven by nutrients from land-based pollution. In South Florida, one of several key sources of such pollution is hundreds of millions of gallons of nutrient-rich, secondarily-treated sewage regularly pumped offshore each day.

Caulerpa brachypus's explosive growth devastates reefs. Besides smothering and killing the coral itself, it covers over the food on which many fish rely, forcing them and their predators away from a reef, and, among other problems, it can fill in the ledges and crannies that attract lobster. Despite this destructive capacity and the potential for serious economic impact, there is currently no scientific information available about how fast the species is spreading or even how
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Contact: Mark Schrope
schrope@hboi.edu
772-216-0390
Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution
23-Jan-2003


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