Tourism and sport fishing represent a multimillion dollar industry for the Florida Keys. But according to experts, the coral reef there has diminished more than 50 percent, and the fish count within the reef is now at its lowest level.
The Florida Keys are a favorite tourist destination. It's fishing, warm weather, beaches and marine life together comprise a multi-million dollar industry, but the changes taking place beneath the waters threaten the industry.
Margaret Miller is a coral reef researcher at the National marine Fisheries Service.
"For the Florida Keys' reefs, overall, the live coral cover has diminished by 50 to 80 percent in the past 10 years," she said.
Many factors have influenced the decline of the coral reef, including pollution, climate change, coastal developments like housing and shopping centers and over-fishing. Miller says all those factors leave coral reefs weak and unable to recover from illnesses that scientists do not yet know how to cure. Sadly, she adds, studying coral populations during the last decade has meant watching them die.
"Corals are very susceptible to warming temperatures, because their lethal temperature [temperature at which they die] and their happy, normal temperature are very close, only separated by a couple of degrees," she added.
Miller says coral reefs are not only beautiful, but extremely important. She says they protect coast lines from storms and serve as habitat and breeding ground for several hundred species of fish. She and her team are involved in coral restoration and reproduction. But corals can take years to grow.
Scientists agree that with the rapidly growing population in Florida, and nearly one million recreational boats on its coast, coral reef recovery is very difficult. University of Miami marine professor Jerry Ault has studied marine life in the region for more than a decade.
"The research has discovered that about 70 percent of all the snapper and grouper in the Florida keys reef system are at population levels below those considered to be sustainable," he said.
Professor Ault says there is an urgent need to rebuild fish populations. And to do so, he says, it is necessary to restore the marine habitat and balance now, in order to have fisheries in the future.
Professor Ault says that in many ways, the Florida Keys are a victim of their own success.
"Everybody loves Florida because of the marine environment. Folks come here to fish and to dive and to take advantage of it, but we are loving it to death," he noted.