Coral Cartography Advances Conservation

Considered among the most complex and diverse environments on Earth, coral reefs play a key role in the health of our planet’s oceans. Pollutants, algae blooms, over-fishing, damage due to development and mooring are well known threats to their own health and recent changes in the global climate are causing additional stresses, including a rise in water temperature and acidity. The result is a further decimation of the existing reefs and the creatures that underpin the ocean’s food web.

Most of our knowledge about coral reefs and benthic habitats is based on monitoring data gathered through a range of methods, mostly reef surveys, varying from rapid monitoring by trained volunteers to highly detailed, species level observations. However, these surveys provide little, if any, information on adjacent benthic habitats, such as sea grass beds or hard bottom, and more importantly, fail to appropriately address and document the spatial component of the marine ecosystem. While coral reef mapping in itself is not new, most of these maps may differentiate shallow from mixed reef areas, but they do not provide further detail, nor do they include adjacent areas of sea grass beds or other benthic habitats.

Caring for coral reefs, however, is dependent on us knowing far more about these extraordinary benthic environments and the associated ecosystems they host, and the establishment of baseline data against which future assessments of ocean health can be measured.

To generate maps of coral reefs, we have used aerial and satellite imagery, remote sensing and ArcGIS, and on-site field-surveys combined with the marine habitat classification framework defined by the Ecological Society of America (ESA) and the National Oceanography and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of Habitat Conservation, which provides for the distinction of community types and density variations therein.

The image shows a highly precise map of the marine area surrounding Peterson Cay that discerns different habitat types from bare ocean floor to algae, sea grass, and coral reef, highlights density variations in each, and pinpoints the exact location of individual species of interest such as the endangered Elkhorn coral.

The ArcView software allows us to determine with impressive precision the spatial expansion of each marine habitat across the study site. As it turns out, coral reef, in its various expressions of density covers 208 acres, sandy bottom with various degrees of sea grass spread out over 263 acres, and areas of hard pad, with algae (generally red and brown algae) of one degree or another covered 209 acres. It is worth emphasizing though that the density of algae coverage in two-third of these areas is less than 10%.

Being able to accurately locate individual corals or territorial fish species is essential for successful management and conservation programs. For instance, observations of the invasive Indo-Pacific lionfish (Pterois volitans), which poses a significant risk to native species, can be charted on the map facilitating its capture and eradication. Having a visual representation of the entire reef, or a number of reefs stretched out across a larger area, is the best means in determining where to install fixed monitoring devices, such as sedimentation traps. The comprehensive understanding of spatial features across the reef will also facilitate the identification of additional dive sites suitable for commercial scuba operators. Increasing the number of dive sites will alleviate the pressure of those currently used every day by multiple groups. Marking mooring sites adjacent to shallow reefs will help avoid reef damage caused by boat traffic and anchors. Last but not least, knowing the exact location, dimension and composition of the reefs will help develop sustainable land use plans for coastal projects that benefit from these natural jewels rather than harming or destroying them.

By documenting the actual environmental conditions, we are able understand the relationship between different habitat types and the larger reef ecosystem as well as monitor expansions or declines of certain habitats. Conducting similar studies on adjacent reefs will eventually lead to a larger-scale map and a deeper understanding of both local and regional reef ecosystems and their processes.

Although this new mapping technology doesn’t necessarily represent the natural state of any ecosystem, it can at least provide a baseline against which we can compare future observations, thus establishing a powerful framework for conservation and management. And that’s what the map of Peterson Cay’s coral reef will do. By combining traditional observational recordings with precise spatial information, it provides new insight into the fascinating world just below the water’s surface.


We all depend on a healthy ocean; a healthy ocean depends on us. Let us be the change we would like to see in the world.  Our new Ocean Sentinels Club is proof that conservation can be fun, rewarding and effective.  The Club unites and empowers citizens to advocate for the conservation of dolphins and the marine environment across Palm Beach County, and beyond. Join us. The time is now. It begins with you.

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Why Oceans Are Important To Us

In his charming and insightful book called ‘The Immense Journey’, biologist-author Loren Eiseley said:

“We have many ways to quench our thirst, but no way to overcome our need for water…its substance reaches everywhere; it touches the past and prepares the future; it moves under the poles and wanders thinly in the heights of the air…If there is magic on the planet, it is contained in water.”

There are about 326 million cubic miles (=525 cubic kilometers) of water on this planet. The largest percentage, 97.4% is found in the oceans.  2.6% is on land and most of this is locked in the great polar ice caps. All the life-sustainable fresh water found in the worlds lakes, creeks, streams, and rivers and in the groundwater or aquifers, represents less than 0.01 percent of the total. Water is virtually and intrinsically important!

The world’s oceans cover 71% of the Earth’s surface. Life probably originated in the seas, and life still depends largely on their well-functioning. Most of the solar heat that hits this planet is stored there, most of the conversion of sunlight to food energy by plants takes place in water, most of the world’s fresh supplies of oxygen are produced by microscopic plant-like organisms floating near the surface of the oceans, the global climate is regulated, and a lot of our food protein comes from the sea. The Ocean is also one of the most important traffic routes and a sink for a large portion of our wastes. It provides natural resources and, to an increasing extent, raw materials for the pharmaceutical industry.

In addition to these primarily material aspects, the ocean has acquired significant value as a recreational area. More and more people seek recreation and relaxation in, or near the water. Marine tourism is one of the most rapidly growing branches of industry.  Proximity to the sea has great value, reflected in incredibly high real estate prices for seashore property. Roughly 70% of the world population lives within 200 km of the coast, and two third of all metropolises, having a population of more than 2.5 million, are situated on the coast. Between 100 and 200 million people live in coastal zones below storm tidal level.  Ignoring these fragile and vital eco-systems can only spell disaster.

From the earliest days of human settlements, up to the industrial revolution, waterways have been a major means of transport. Cities and industrial plants, even after the industrial revolution, have been located on these waterways, because many of them require water for manufacturing and/or shipping to coastal ports. With very few exceptions, all streams and rivers flow into other rivers or into lakes, which, in turn, have outlets to wetlands, bays, estuaries, seas and oceans.

The aggregation of wastes flowing into our streams and estuaries, and ultimately into the oceans, is a biochemical soup carrying thousands of different chemicals. Rainwater and snow melt, that run off from congested urban areas, collect street oil and chemicals as well as many metals. Runoff into streams and rivers adjacent to farmlands carry tons of suspended particles of soil. This is not only damaging to fish but can also choke-out submerged oxygen-giving grasses in coastal woodlands, bays or estuaries. Runoff from timber harvesting activities, especially clear cutting, deprives the exposed land of thousands of tons of soil and has caused the pollution of some of the most valuable spawning grounds for trout and salmon in the Pacific Northwest.

Runoff of the nitrogen and phosphorus components of fertilizers leads to an oxygen depletion in the water. This depletion has caused massive fish die-offs and can wipe out whole areas of marine habitat necessary to maintain the life cycles of myriads of species of aquatic life. Other chemicals, such as DDT can accumulate in the tissues of marine animals to toxic levels, even if they live their entire lives in remote parts of the globe (Antarctic penguins and seal species for example).

The incredibly rapid petrochemical revolution, which forms the basis for this modern age of plastic, has spawned a nearly exponential increase in major sources of pollution affecting our stratosphere, atmosphere, lands and waters. We build this material to last and now, after years of dumping it into the sea, it has come back to haunt us, killing and maiming marine life. Plastic is believed to be the most far-reaching man-made threat facing many marine species, annually killing or maiming tens of thousands of seabirds, seals, sea lions and sea otters, as well as hundreds of whales, dolphins, porpoises and turtles.

We know that the deadly flows we are adding to our oceans do not just disappear.  Many of them do not even decay. In all, this mixture can kill plant and marine life, contaminate food supplies and endanger people and entire coastal communities. With over 50% of the US population now living within 100 miles of our coastlines, it is no accident that the highest chemical contamination can be found in waters of the largest of the cities on these coasts – Boston, New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.

What long-term effects and future afflictions are in store for our “water planet” is beyond our present knowledge, but there is doubt that global environmental changes will have serious effects on the oceans will pose great problems for many countries, and the very existence of some island states may even be threatened. Given the different functions oceans and coastal areas have for human society, conflicts between different interests, such as utilization and protection, will arise.


We all depend on a healthy ocean; a healthy ocean depends on us. Let us be the change we would like to see in the world.  Our new Ocean Sentinels Club is proof that conservation can be fun, rewarding and effective.  The Club unites and empowers citizens to advocate for the conservation of dolphins and the marine environment across Palm Beach County, and beyond. Join us. The time is now. It begins with you.

Read more

Sustainable Coastal Development

Coastlines are where the sea meets land. While they always played an important role in human history, they have increasingly become one of the most desirable living places on the planet. People chose to live near the water for various reasons: a fairly moderate climate influenced by coastal winds, and year-round access to leisure, fishing, and ports for navigation and transportation of goods. For many, the deciding factor evolves around the lifestyle coastal environments provide. In recent decades, affluent urbanites and retirees have begun to move to small existing coastal towns or newly created communities in their search for beautiful, natural surroundings. Recent research, suggesting that people who live closer to the coast are in better health, has only strengthened its appeal.

Sustainability and resilience are becoming increasingly relevant in coastal development. While the concept of sustainability has been around since the 1990s, resilience is a relatively new concept: it represents a holistic, anticipatory and proactive approach that values adaptability to change.

Change is constant and inevitable, and we are witnessing the beginnings of some dramatic changes related to temperature and sea level rise. In fact, we can observe the effects already, including an increase in daily temperatures, change in rainfall patterns and extreme weather events, sea level rise, increase in sea surface temperature, changes in hydrology, and loss of biodiversity. The associated impacts will be felt sooner than originally anticipated and will affect the return on the investments made in the coming years. Sea-level rise threatens low-lying shores, especially those in storm paths, but even rugged coasts may experience significant changes in weather patterns. Resulting economic costs and damages to resorts, airports, local tourism, etc. in the Caribbean alone are estimated to exceed 20 billion dollars (US) per year. By contrast, proactive adaptation is far less expensive, with $1 in adaptation preventing $4 in economic losses.

Adaptation means to create coastal built environments that can withstand higher seas and stronger storm surges through sensible choices in terms of siting, setbacks and elevations. With regard to infrastructure such as energy, water, and wastewater treatment, it appears advantageous to employ more decentralized, smaller and flexible systems that can be repeatedly adapted over time to the changing physical conditions of coastal environments. Research and education are useful tools to develop adaption measures related to land use, changes in hydrology, exposure to tropical vector diseases, seal level rise, extreme weather events, biodiversity and ecosystems (just to name a few) that will result in sustainable and resilient costal developments.

The development of coastal areas will continue to be a desirable undertaking simply by virtue of location, but it is imperative for the future of the planet and our own sake as people to create coastal environments that are resilient, sustainable and economically viable.

And remember:

We all depend on a healthy ocean; a healthy ocean depends on us. Let us be the change we would like to see in the world.  Our new Ocean Sentinels Club is proof that conservation can be fun, rewarding and effective.  The Club unites and empowers citizens to advocate for the conservation of dolphins and the marine environment across Palm Beach County, and beyond. Join us. The time is now. It begins with you.

Read more