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Violent ocean motion no magic potion for reefs

In August, Harbor Branch scientists began a new survey of Florida coral reefs expecting to document the devastating spread of harmful seaweed that has been progressing now for several years, but hurricane havoc has instead led the team to a surprising find. With their first survey nearly completed, it appears all reefs in the path of hurricanes Frances and Jeanne have been largely scoured free of the menacing seaweed, and many have also been buried in sand. Seaweed overgrowth problems are likely to return, however, and could even be exacerbated by the storms' temporary removal. Further south, off areas beyond the brunt of the storms, the team has found alarming concentrations of a cyanobacterium similar to algae killing corals and other reef organisms.

"This is uncharted territory," says Harbor Branch marine ecologist Brian Lapointe, "no one has ever had the chance to study the impacts of natural phenomena like hurricanes on reefs under siege from these harmful algal blooms that we believe are triggered by humans."

For three decades now, Lapointe has been studying the harmful spread of macroalgae, or seaweed, on coral reefs throughout Florida and around the world. Besides smothering and killing coral itself, such harmful algal blooms (HABs) cover the food on which many fish rely, forcing them and their predators away, and HABs can fill ledges and crannies that attract lobster.

Ongoing funding from the Environmental Protection Agency that began in 2003 had allowed Lapointe and his team to study two isolated reefs off Palm Beach County that had become almost completely covered in lawns of an invasive alga called Caulerpa brachypus, among other species. This insidious alien is closely related to Caulerpa taxifolia, which has caused billions of dollars in damage since accidental introduction to the Mediterranean in 1989. South Florida dive operators have reported for years that overgrowth was so bad at some previously popular dive reefs that the
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Contact: Mark Schrope
schrope@hboi.edu
772-216-0390
Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution
21-Dec-2004


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