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Corals Weakened By Nutrient-Laden Water Can't Fight Climate Change, Study Says

Steve Newborn

Florida International University researchers say nutrient-laden water caused by human activity is making it harder for corals to fight off infections and climate change.

A recent study by FIU says corals living in high concentrations of these nutrients are having a harder time dealing with the normal wear and tear of reef life because their immune systems are weakened. The findings were published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.

Click here to view the study.

Associate professor Mauricio Rodrigues-Lanetty said with this information, researchers may be able to start mapping coral reefs in terms of their vulnerability.

"We could predict that some corals might be more immune compromised … and therefore, will be more vulnerable to certain diseases,” he said. “And that will be so important in management to start controlling and mitigating these problems."

Nutrients also intensify coral bleaching, which is caused by ocean warming, said Rodrigues-Lanetty.

He said this has been a growing concern for more than a decade -- especially for reefs near urban areas, like the Florida Keys.

"Through runoff by rain or by the waterway system that we have in South Florida, a lot of these nitrogen from fertilizers end up coming to the Florida Bay and start affecting the coral reef in the Florida Keys,” said Rodrigues-Lanetty.

Coral diseases in the Florida Keys and in the Caribbean have been increasing over the past 20 years, and researchers say there is a connection with nutrient pollution.

“We need to work together to improve water quality,” he said. “I think this is the most important action that we all need to do in order to help corals recover their health.”

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Jessica Meszaros is a reporter and host of Morning Edition at WUSF Public Media.