In our newsletter, Near & Far, we digitally travel to locations all around the world, explore a region’s unique environment and culture, and share stories of local community impact. Subscribe to receive our emails every other week!
It’s July 20th and Jim Porter, an award-winning coral researcher, and his partner Jake McGrew dive into the 101 degree water off the coast of Key Largo, Florida. As they swim beneath the surface, surveying the coral reefs below them, they notice that some of the same coral that was a vibrant yellow just six days before is now a shocking white. Coral bleaching was all over the news this summer, but this team is more interested in why some of the coral is bleaching, and some remains healthy. Could this be coral adaptation?
ABOUT THE PLACE
Two weeks ago I hopped on a Zoom call with Dr. Jim Porter and Jake McGrew, leaders of a Far Away sponsored project, Key Largo Diving Expedition. I wanted to know what they had discovered on their recent expedition to the Florida Keys and what they were doing with these discoveries. My first question to Jim was “Why are you studying coral in the Florida Keys specifically?” Jim referenced Bruce Babbitt, former secretary of the interior, saying “If we can’t conserve the Keys, we cannot conserve any coral reef anywhere.”
The Florida Keys are home to two national parks and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, all dedicated to the preservation of coral reefs. These protected areas receive substantial support from the federal government, making them a focal point for research and conservation. Additionally, Jake highlighted the fact that there is a substantial amount of under-treated wastewater coming off of the mainland in Florida. This under-treated water can infect coral with white pox disease, which is a continuous focus of Jim Porter’s research.
ABOUT THE PROJECT
This past July, Jim Porter, Jacob McGrew, and several student scientists travelled to Key Largo to conduct a diving expedition. The goal of this expedition was to further investigate the effect of white pox disease on coral in the area. Because of the unexpected heat wave and subsequent coral bleaching event, they are also studying the effects of coral bleaching.
Why Should You Care About Coral?
For Jim and Jake, coral restoration has been top of mind for a long time. But for the average person, like myself, coral reefs may not be something we think about often. So I asked them both to explain why we should care so much about coral. Their response was this: Coral reefs are the most biologically diverse environments on earth. For instance, 32 of the 33 animal phyla are found on coral reefs versus the 8 which are found in a tropical rainforest. In addition to that, a third of all living plant and animal species in the ocean are found on coral reefs. Coral reefs are the sole source of protein and income for half a billion people on this planet. Of the 180 sovereign nations on Earth, 95 have coral reefs within their territorial boundaries. Coral reefs worldwide generate at least $10 trillion per annum. That’s often for countries that otherwise have little access to financial capital in any other way. This is not just an environmental issue, it’s also a humanitarian issue.
Coral Bleaching Challenges
Because of the record breaking water temperatures this summer, corals across several countries were bleaching and dying. Many coral colonies that Jim Porter had been monitoring fell victim to this devastating event. The urgency of conservation efforts in the Keys became even more apparent this summer. Jim emphasized that local scale actions are still extremely important, even in a climate changing world.
Hope in Adaptation
The optimistic message resulting from this expedition is that there appears to be climate adaptation. Many of the corals that previously might have died from these elevated temperatures were still able to survive during the period that the Key Largo team was investigating them. This suggests that over time, climate adaptation to some elevated temperatures is possible. However, in the long term, we still must get a handle on greenhouse gas emissions as they drive ever increasing temperatures in the Florida Keys and elsewhere. Coral, being living organisms, have the capacity to adapt. However, the conditions cannot be too extreme for too long.
The Impact of Their Work
Jim and his team plan to investigate whether corals affected by disease due to under-treated wastewater are more vulnerable to bleaching. Their samples have been returned to the University of Georgia for genetic analysis.
The field data that was gathered this summer will be instrumental in informing coral restoration efforts. Their data will inform the work of The Coral Restoration Foundation, who is bringing corals into the lab on shore to be placed in cooler water tanks. The Georgia Aquarium, which Jim is an advisor to, is attempting to raise Elkhorn coral and has discussed trying to breed corals that have a higher tolerance to elevated temperatures. Jim is using the funds raised through Far Away Projects to work in tandem with conservation groups in the area to uncover both short and long term solutions to these problems.
Dr. Jim Porter has just received a successful National Science Foundation grant which will fund these studies for another three years.He is one of the only emeritus professors to ever receive this grant, a grant that received the highest score of any competing proposal.
The funds raised through Far Away Projects supported this expedition and the ability to collect these necessary field samples. Additionally, Jim shared with me that this expedition inspired three doctoral dissertations from students who were able to participate. Initially, none of these doctoral students had planned to work on this specific project. However, because of the Far Away funds, Jim and Jake were able to bring these young scientists into the field, which inspired their dissertations. Additionally, the activities that were funded by you all through Far Away contributed to the success of the NSF grant. Jim shared that the National Science Foundation was fascinated by, and very pleased with, the citizen science emphasis that we supported. Thank you to those who contributed to this project, making this groundbreaking research possible. Jim, Jake, and the Far Away team are grateful for your continued support and dedication to conserving our planet’s precious coral reefs.
How You Can Continue to Support
Spread Awareness: Share this newsletter and the incredible discoveries made by Jim and Jake with your friends, family, and networks.
Support Far Away Projects: Continue to support our mission to fund innovative and impactful projects that make a tangible difference in our world.
Stay Informed: Jim Porter, Far Away Projects, and others are collaborating on a vital project to remove underwater munitions from coral reefs in Hawaii and Puerto Rico. Keep an eye out for future updates on the Munitions Cleanup Project in a future newsletter.
ABOUT THE PROJECT LEADERS
Jim Porter is an award winning coral researcher who was featured in the Netflix documentary Chasing Coral. Discoveries from his research program have already saved coral in Key West. For this work, Dr. Porter received the 2020 Eminence in Research Award from the International Coral Reef Society. For his contributions to the Netflix Documentary, Chasing Coral, he received a 2017 Peabody Award and the 2018 Emmy Award for Best Nature Documentary.
Jake is the Executive Director of Tiburones n Tortugas, a marine conservation and research nonprofit organization that is focused on protecting the biodiversity of the eastern tropical Pacific. He is an avid scuba diver and a professional ski instructor in his spare time. Jake also works closely with his former professor, and current mentor, Dr. Jim Porter. They study coral disease and heat-stress related bleaching in the Florida Keys; as well as underwater munitions survey and removal in the Hawaiian islands.
Hi I’m Andrea, the interviewer in this email. I’m Far Away Projects’ Communications Coordinator and likely the one to blame for any spelling mistakes you receive in our communications, I’m unfortunately known to make those. I was born and raised in Austin, Texas and now work out of the beautiful and rainy Portland, Oregon. I’m passionate about supporting grassroots projects through marketing and storytelling. Fun fact, I have a blackbelt in Kung Fu but its really not as impressive as it sounds. Don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions or comments! [email protected]
Chasing Coral Documentary
Learn more about coral reefs and their importance in this award winning Netflix documentary featuring Dr. Jim Porter. Watch the trailer below, and watch the entire documentary on Netflix.
Coral Bleaching Articles
Read this article about how climate change is affecting coral reefs
Or this Guardian article about coral bleaching across America
Learn more about the Coral Restoration Foundation
Learn more about the Georgia Aquarium’s Sea Coral Research & Conservation
Key Largo Press
Jim Porter’s critical coral research was featured in press sources in the Florida Keys.
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