The lead scientist on a study that surveyed the health of Caribbean coral reefs over 50 years says climate change is not the most severe threat facing coral reefs.
The Florida Keys reef is among the unhealthiest reefs in the Caribbean, said Jeremy Jackson, who grew up in South Florida and first visited the Keys in the late 1940s.
"I have seen with my own eyes an appalling degradation," he said. The Keys, along with Jamaica, are considered a "failure reef" in the report. The unhealthiest reefs all were heavily fished and were near high population densities, Jackson said.
"The Keys are just at the bottom of the barrel. In fact, it's sort of embarrassing to the United States, because the coral reefs of the Florida Keys and of the U.S. Virgin Islands are as bad as Jamaica," Jackson said. "And Jamaica is an impoverished nation of 3 million people where a lot of people are starving and subsistence fishing is a matter of life and death. And that's definitely not the case in the United States."
Jackson, scientist emeritus with the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, said that to adequately protect the Keys reef about 30 percent of the area should be completely protected from all impacts including fishing and diving.
He reviewed the study's findings and his recommendations with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council Tuesday. That group is made up of local fishermen, divers, tourism promoters, scientists and conservationists.
While the Keys have a relative small population — about 74,000 residents — the booming tourism industry and proximity to a major metropolitan area means the reefs are heavily used, Jackson said.
"You've got 5 million people living next door who come down and use it as their backyard pool," he said.
If reefs are protected from fishing, then they are more likely to see more fish, including herbivores that keep algae in check. And a reef that is not overgrown with algae is in better shape to deal with the effects of climate change, Jackson said.
That's why areas that are less visited or have strictly enforced regulations, like the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary off Texas or the reefs off Bermuda, are in better shape, Jackson said.
"The corals may bleach but they don't get sick and die," he said. "And in the places where they're not so protected, they do."
The Keys sanctuary is currently updating its regulations, including potential changes to marine protected areas. A draft proposal is expected to be released for public review late this year.