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Volunteer divers sought to help detect, document coral bleaching in Florida Keys

(DiverWire) Summer is here and the water is growing warmer. For divers in the Florida Keys this means forgoing wetsuits and dive skins, but for coral reefs it can mean serious stress and the potential for coral bleaching.

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Mote Marine Lab are enlisting the help of divers and snorkelers to aid in early detection of stressed corals, more specifically bleached corals, through the BleachWatch (http://isurus.mote.org/Keys/bleaching.phtml) volunteer observer program. This summer approximately 40 divers joined the ranks of more than 200 observers trained to identify and report signs of coral paling, bleaching and disease. These educated “eyes on the water” serve as an early warning system to inform reef managers of coral stress.

The sanctuary and Mote developed and implemented the BleachWatch program in 2005, in response to increasing occurrences of coral bleaching in the Keys. The Keys BleachWatch was originally developed in partnership and modeled after the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s BleachWatch early warning network and volunteer observer program (http://www.gbrmpa.gov.au/corp_site/key_issues/climate_change/management_responses/bleach_watch2.html). Since then, similar volunteer observer programs have started in Mesoamerica (www.marcoralwatch.net) and Belize (www.ecomarbelize.org/coralwatch)

Over the past six years, Mote has developed partnerships with dive operators, environmental organizations, researchers, and various community groups and local residents in order to coordinate a broad range of volunteers from throughout the Florida Keys. Typically between 200-300 volunteer observations are submitted during the summer months of May through October, which in turn aid in the creation of the Current Conditions Report (http://isurus.mote.org/Keys/current_conditions.phtml) provided to sanctuary managers and the public. More volunteer observations are needed however, and Mote continues to offer training to interested groups of divers and snorkelers.

Volunteer observations can be submitted via email or web forms and the information aids researchers in rapid detection, assessment and response to bleaching. BleachWatch is funded by Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and managed by Mote Marine Laboratory.

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