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How rising ocean temperatures will impact ecotourism in Florida


The ocean temperature topped 101 degrees this week in South Florida. For comparison, that's the ideal temperature of a hot tub. Temperatures like that are an environmental concern, especially for corals. But is it also giving those in the ecotourism industry in Florida some pause? Joining us now is Jennifer Pollom, director of conservation at Rainbow Reef Dive Center and also executive director of the Ocean Conservation Foundation. Jennifer, let's just start off with what happens to coral reefs when the ocean is hot.

JENNIFER POLLOM: Well, when the ocean is hot, it's called bleaching, which I'm sure many of you have heard of. And, essentially, corals expel the algae in their cell walls that helps them produce food, which means that they die. They have about a month to come back if ocean temperatures cool. But given that it's so hot right now, it's fairly unlikely that that's going to happen.

MARTÍNEZ: And coral reefs, I mean, they're beautiful. They're so colorful. They've got, you know, critters swimming all over the place. I mean, it'd be a reason why I'd want to go and travel to see them. Does tourism suffer when reefs bleach, when they're not as pretty?

POLLOM: We aren't seeing - of course, people come down to see the fish and the corals and everything. We aren't seeing a dramatic business impact right now. We're seeing a few people who don't want to, maybe, take their afternoon dive because the water is simply uncomfortably hot. We're seeing an equal number of people who would like to come down and try to see the reefs while they're still in the best condition that they can be. The bigger impact, however, is that tourism economies like Key Largo, where we're located, are dependent almost entirely on the reefs and the marine ecosystems for boating, for fishing.

In fact, there are a billion people worldwide who depend on coral reefs specifically, either directly or indirectly, for their livelihood. So it's a huge economic impact if coral reefs start to disintegrate. Between fishermen, tourism, even processing plants for fish or canneries for fish, the supply chain goes pretty far down. And so coral reefs are really vital for many coastal economies.

MARTÍNEZ: Is it too late to save the coral reef in Florida?

POLLOM: Absolutely not. We need a lot of action from divers and non-divers. There are a lot of great organizations down here - coral scientific organizations and, of course, our Ocean Conservation Foundation - who uses professional divers to help outplant coral. But there is a massive effort going on down here right now to outplant the reef to try to mitigate the human impact that we've had already.

The Florida reef tract is actually considered almost functionally extinct, which means there's only 2% of the remaining corals that should be on the reef naturally left, which is why we have this massive outreach program with scientists and with the government and with foundations like ours to actually outplant the reef, because we believe that the reef can't come back without human intervention at this point. But there's a lot of hope.

MARTÍNEZ: Just about 20 seconds left, Jennifer. At least you do have some hope.

POLLOM: Yes, definitely. There's definitely hope. We really need people to get active, though, about it. We need people to understand the utility of coral reefs, that the food chain is dependent on it and that coral reefs protect coastal environments from storms. So it dissipates all of that wave energy before those hurricanes hit the shores.

MARTÍNEZ: Jennifer Pollom, director of conservation at Rainbow Reef Dive Center, executive director of the Ocean Conservation Foundation. Jennifer, thanks.

POLLOM: Thank you.


A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.