Coral Reef Ecosystems Becoming a Priority in Schools Curriculum

Giovanna Key

Behind the Scenes of our Educational Curriculum

As a student finishing my high school career at a maritime-oriented school, Maritime and Science Technology Academy, I have been lucky to have been allowed to get access to a more environmentally concerned curriculum than the majority of other high schools in the general Miami area. The majority of other public schools in the area have been recorded to have extremely narrow curriculums solely created and designed so that the students can fulfill their requirements needed to graduate. This does not take into consideration the necessity to teach students and inform them regarding their surroundings and the urgency for the change needed to save our planet. Although there are courses like Environmental Science and Marine Science, the course content either rarely or does not cover subtopics like conservation or restoration of damaged ecosystems like coral reefs. There are other ways to get access to this environmental content like joining clubs, for example, the Eclipse Club at MAST Academy covers all sorts of ways to begin taking part in protecting our environment. The issue with this is that because of COVID-19 it has become difficult to become informed about which clubs to join and what they will cover as your time in them progresses.

Why Should we be Concerned About Implementing Courses Focused on Coral Reef Restoration?

Our schools are based in a community where we are home to ecosystems like the Florida Reef Tract. This allows us to have a first-hand experience of the changes that are occurring regarding reefs. Taking an hour drive south of our school, MAST Academy, will leave us in the Florida Keys. The Florida Keys are home to one of the most beautiful and largest coral reef ecosystems in the continental United States. The reef ecosystems in the Florida Keys have been recorded to be dying because of factors like coastal development. Coastal development leads to a surplus of pollution into our oceans because the wastewater carries toxins that harm the surrounding habitats and ecosystems. When there is a surplus of these toxins and nutrients, it leads to eutrophication, which does not allow the reefs to get access to sunlight or oxygen; meaning they cannot photosynthesize and they are being suffocated by the algal blooms on the surface of the water. The threats that are most concerning for the ecosystems are pollution, ocean acidification, destructive fishing practices (benthic trawling), and the quick rate of climate change.

Visual flow chart on how ocean acidification affects coral reefs.

Now, why should this concern us?

Coral reefs are known to be ecosystems with a high net primary productivity rate are high in biodiversity, they act as a protective barrier for the shorelines to prevent erosion, and they provide habitats for roughly 25% of marine organisms. While these are extremely important factors to take into consideration, it is also important to know the coral reefs are responsible for generating 50% of the Earth’s oxygen. With the increase of external factors such as global warming, there has been a spike in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This leads to an increased rate of coral bleaching because they cannot adapt quickly enough to adjust to the fluxing changes in ocean temperature. As a result of these increased carbon dioxide emissions, the coral reef populations are bleaching quicker because they are absorbing the carbon dioxide. There is still room for recovery because their bleaching does not mean they are dead yet, so there is time to take action and help these organisms make a recovery. Without them, we will drastically have a cut in our oxygen supply and it will be questioning what could happen next.

Florida Reef Tract side by side before and after, 10 Years Apart.

Restoration Techniques in a Broad Setting

There are large restoration efforts across the globe to save these ecosystems. Specifically, in the Florida Keys and the Caribbean, there have been large restoration efforts to protect these organisms that are on the brink of extinction. Some of these efforts include underwater farming and attaching the pieces of coral that had broken off back onto the base of the coral. This form of restoration, which is known as transplanting / translocating, allows the coral to recover from previous damage. Other restoration methods which are being tested out can include practice such as coral gardening. Top tier universities and programs like UM Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, Nova Southeastern University, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Mote Marine Laboratory, The Nature Conservancy, and NOAA have worked on researching the benefits of practices like coral gardening. These programs have been working together to raise a large sample of corals and place them in reef ecosystems to see how they would respond. The outcome was positive as it helped the reefs recover from previous damage, and this helped introduce a new way to approach restoration.

NOAA coral garden being used to help repopulate damaged reefs.

Restoration Techniques in a High School Setting

Although the restoration methods stated above have had positive effects on the environment, they are not exactly feasible for students in high school. There are other ways that students can get involved and be a part of the crowd striving to make a change and protect our reefs. This all begins with becoming informed on the topic. Unless students have a direct interest in marine ecosystems and specifically coral reefs, it is difficult to spark an interest in these students. Speaking on my behalf, before informing myself and having to do a project specifically on coral reefs, I would have never found myself in this position speaking on the severity of needing students to make a change. Students need to become more informed in a school setting about what is going on in marine ecosystems, and why it is so important to them. Whether it is through seminars, courses on marine ecosystem protection, labs on what factors that affect coral reefs, or having a coral reef farm so that students can see the development of a reef and know what it takes to protect a reef of their own. There are a series of lab experiments that can visually display to students how certain chemical pollutants caused by humans can cause the corals to quickly bleach, there are also labs that can be done to visually teach the students’ remediation methods. A small coral farm can teach students about the progression of the coral reefs population in a controlled environment and teach them to care about marine ecosystems. It is easier to grasp the attention of students when there is a physical and hands-on approach to teach them about coral reefs and restoration practices.

Help us get our reefs back to this.