Coral diplomacy: the UAE's role in safeguarding Florida's marine heritage

Charity receives funding from UAE to help bolster reef-saving initiatives

Coral bleaching occurs when corals, stressed by anomalies such as escalated temperatures, eject the symbiotic algae living within them. AP
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As coral bleaching devastates reefs in the Florida Keys, a new partnership between a local charity and the UAE could help turn the tide against the climate change-related phenomenon.

The United Way of Collier and the Keys has announced a $50,000 collaborative effort with the UAE aimed at bolstering coral conservation initiatives undertaken by Reef Renewal USA.

This is not the first time the UAE has sent assistance to Florida: following catastrophic Hurricane Irma in 2017, the UAE donated about $10 million to Florida for reconstruction purposes.

Out of this, $3.5 million went directly to the Florida Keys, with a portion of these funds directed towards coral conservation, cementing the UAE's position as the leading international benefactor of the state's beloved reefs.

“Coral bleaching occurs when corals, stressed by anomalies such as escalated temperatures, eject the symbiotic algae living within them,” says Phanor Montoya-Maya, marine biologist at the Coral Reef Foundation.

“It's like a plant shedding its leaves during drought.”

In Florida, the waters are becoming so hot that some corals are dying from heat stress before they even bleach.

Recent reports suggest that parts of Florida's waters registered a searing 37.8°C this summer, with experts noting that these temperatures are not only disastrous for the coral ecosystem but also for the myriad species that rely on them.

A heart-rending testament to this is the 100 per cent coral mortality reported at Sombrero Reef, which had been under restoration for more than a decade.

“It's challenging to predict the exact long-term outcomes for Florida's coral reefs under current climate change scenarios, particularly as hard corals across Florida's Coral Reef, including the Upper Keys, are currently being stressed by heat,” Dr Montoya-Maya tells The National.

“However, if water temperatures continue to hit excessive highs for extended periods, their survival becomes increasingly uncertain in the future.”

The Florida Keys Barrier Reef, unique in the US for its biodiversity, boosts South Florida's economy and ecology, attracting tourists and offering a crucial defence against storms.

Sarah Fangman, superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, draws attention to the broader scope of the problem, stressing that climate change is a global concern.

“No singular country or organisation can tackle the ramifications of climate change in isolation,” she tells The National, highlighting the UAE's crucial aid following Hurricane Irma, a calamity that ravaged both the marine life and communities of southern Florida.

Ms Fangman explains that the South Atlantic and Caribbean reef system is extremely important for maintaining the environmental balance in the region.

The UAE funding will help Reef Renewal USA in developing targeted projects that focus on removing the corals at risk of bleaching from their current environment and relocating them to deep water or land-based nurseries, the United Way said in a press release.

The joint effort between the United Way and the UAE is a beacon of hope in these challenging times, Tiffani Mensch, president and chief executive of the organisation, tells The National.

“There is no hesitation when help is needed to safeguard these fragile ecosystems for future generations,” she says.

“Our collaboration with the UAE and global partners presents an unprecedented opportunity to make a lasting impact on the marine environment.”

This international endeavour will work closely with Mission: Iconic Reefs, a project focused on the restoration of seven reefs in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

“This is a local emergency that is part of a global crisis,” Dana Al Marashi, head of cultural diplomacy at the UAE embassy in Washington, said in a statement.

“The funding will play a crucial role in accelerating Reef Renewal USA’s efforts to save its genetically valuable coral. Together, UWCK is joining Reef Renewal USA and other partner organisations demonstrating a commitment to being part of the solution during the coral bleaching crisis.”

With a searing July predicted to be the hottest month in millennia, the importance of international alliances such as this cannot be overstated.

“Our goal is to ensure that coral reefs exist in the future,” Dr Montoya-Maya says.

“To achieve this, we must prioritise funding and implementation policies, recognising that our coral reefs require a co-ordinated effort across multiple countries.”

Updated: August 31, 2023, 3:30 AM