FIU professor works to protect South Florida’s coral reefs

On any given day, Deron Burkepile, assistant professor of marine science at Florida International University’s Biscayne Bay Campus can be found conducting research on how humans impact marine and terrestrial ecosystems, and what actions can be carried out to mitigate resulting damage.

His latest work focuses on common South Florida pollutants from sewage, agricultural practices and other sources that can lead to a rapid increase in coral disease, as well as bleaching among nearby coral reefs. The three-year study examined the effects of increased exposure to nitrogen and phosphorous in a controlled testing site. It was one of the largest and longest experiments conducted to evaluate nutrient loading on coral reefs. The study, published in “Global Change Biology,” determined these common pollutants doubled the prevalence of disease and more than tripled the amount of coral bleaching, according to Burkepile.

“The results of the study actually offer hope that local decisions to mitigate nutrient pollution can help corals survive the increasing stress of rising sea surface temperatures as a result of climate change,” Burkepile said. “While slowing climate change will take coordinated, international action over decades, reducing nutrient pollution on coral reefs can have immediate effects on reef health and conservation.”

For years researchers have observed the decline in coral reef health where sewage outflows or use of fertilizers, in urban or agricultural areas have caused an increase in the loading of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. But until now, almost no large long-term experiments have been conducted to pin down the impact of nutrient overloading to separate them from other possible causes of coral reef decline. According to the findings, once the addition of pollutants stopped, the corals recovered within months.

A leading marine ecologist, Burkepile has completed two missions at FIU’s Aquarius Reef Base http://aquarius.fiu.edu/), the world’s only undersea research lab located off the coast of Key Largo.

For more information on Burkepile and FIU’s environmental research, visit seas.fiu.edu or call 305-919-6000.

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