When a mystery scourge struck the Florida Reef Tract, this determined Gator slipped on her dive mask and rescued vulnerable species. Now she is protecting the Keys’ ecosystems for future generations.
Growing up in Wisconsin, biologist Katy Cummings (MS ’16) went through a two-year “wolf phase,” she says. At the tender age of 7, she taught herself to imitate different wolf howls – the soaring cry of a lone wolf, the low-pitched warning of an alpha male, the chirpy call of a pup. Before going to bed each night, she would stand outside and howl at the moon.
One chilly weekend, little Katy ventured outside to perform her vocal bedtime ritual. An hour later, as she lay fast asleep under layers of blankets, her parents received a surprise visitor. A full-grown coyote had crept onto the front lawn and was howling for his lost “pack mate.”
Cummings’ early affinity with wildlife only deepened as she got older and pursued a career in the natural sciences.
The Coral Rescue Project is an amazing endeavor that is analogous to taking the last rhinos out of the wild and putting them in a zoo safe from poachers
— Katy Cummings —
Today, this 30-year-old graduate of UF’s Interdisciplinary Ecology Program is harnessing her expertise and innate optimism to defend the Keys’ vulnerable coastal environs. After having combatted coral reef die-off for nearly five years along the Florida Reef Tract, Cummings recently stepped into new “flippers” as the Florida Keys aquatic preserves manager for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP). Presiding over the Lignumviate Key and Coupon Bight Aquatic Preserves, she protects nearly 14,000 acres of Florida’s living waters, home to breeding birds, fish nurseries and seagrass meadows, as well as threatened coral species.
Cummings credits a college independent study on the Caribbean island of Montserrat with sparking her desire to rescue Florida’s lush coral reefs, which have recently been ravaged by a mysterious ocean-borne plague.
“I’ve always been one to root for the underdog,” Cummings says.
“Corals might not be as ‘sexy’ as whales or sea turtles, says Cummings, referring to the “charismatic megafauna” that get more attention and fundraising dollars. “But they are fascinating animals in their own right, both as animals and as a habitat so many other organisms depend on.
“Once I learned how important corals are to the marine system and to humans, as well as how undervalued they are, I was hooked on studying – and saving – them.”
Coral Killer on the Loose
Coral is a tiny animal, not a rock, mounds of which are made of thousands of tiny invertebrates called polyps. Rising sea temperatures can cause coral polyps to starve and turn white, an event called bleaching. While partial recovery is possible, bleaching remains the major threat to corals worldwide.
But in Florida and the Caribbean, a lethal new disease poses an even bigger threat: stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD). Unlike bleaching, once a coral reef is infected with SCTLD, it is gone forever. (See “Ebola of Coral Diseases,” below.)
Cummings – along with scientists from UF/IFAS Florida Sea Grant and 60 other state and national entities – is on the front lines trying to stem the advance of SCTLD. She says the general public is largely unaware of how dire the situation is.
Stretching from St. Lucie Inlet to the Dry Tortugas, the Florida Reef Tract sustains much of the state’s fishing and tourism industries, generating $375 billion each year in goods and services. The reef also provides a natural barrier to flooding, critical in this era of rising sea levels and monster hurricanes.
“Although the bleaching and coral declines on [Australia’s] Great Barrier Reef get a lot of attention,” says Cummings, “here in Florida, we have lost about 85% of our coral cover.”
Badger State Biologist
Landlocked Wisconsin is not known for spawning marine biologists, but Cummings – who grew up in Muskego, near Milwaukee – says her heart was set on the profession since elementary school.
“The documentaries I watched as a kid – thank you, PBS! – really started my interest,” she says.
She also credits her love of nature to two towering Wisconsinites: John Muir (1838-1914), known as the “Father of the National Parks,” and Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), often considered the most influential conservation figure of the 20th century.
When she was 12, Cummings’ parents took Katy and her older brother, Chris, on a cruise to the U.S. Virgin Islands; there an introductory class ignited her passion for scuba diving.
During high school, Cummings spent two summers interning with a local chapter of The Nature Conservancy, and as a biology major at Lawrence University, in Appleton, Cummings took advantage of the school’s marine studies program, one of the few offered in the state. A 10-month independent study on Monserrat gave her the opportunity to work alongside locals saving coral reef slated to be destroyed by construction of a new dock.
“After that experience, I decided I really wanted to work with corals,” she says.
Cummings’ coursework as a biology major included enough geology classes for her to earn a Bachelor of Arts in both subjects in 2011. Among the ancient sites she explored were Wisconsin’s own fossilized coral reefs, remnants from 520 million years ago when North America was covered by a warm shallow ocean teeming with life.
Co-majoring in geology was ideal training for a future coral specialist, she says: “Corals are a perfect mix of biology and geology. They are animals that make rocks that can live for thousands of years.”
“Something Funky on the Reef”
Cummings’ career as a marine scientist parallels the rise of stony coral tissue loss disease. In 2012, the then-23-year-old worked for the Smithsonian Institute excavating fossils in danger of being crushed by the $5.25 billion expansion of the Panama Canal, done to accommodate a new generation of giant container ships.
The debut of the plus-size vessels meant ports around the world, including those in South Florida, had to widen and deepen their canals. Biologist Bill Precht was monitoring a Port of Miami dredging project for ecosystem damage in September 2014 when he received a frantic phone call:
“I’m seeing something funky out on the reef,” said his colleague.
When he dove to investigate, Precht found more than 30 coral communities scarred with white bands; some corals were completely white.
“You could see this line of mortality moving across the reef – I was blown away,” Precht told Yale Environment 360.
The biologist was witnessing the first signs of SCTLD, a scourge that now covers 306 miles of the 360-mile-long Florida Reef Tract.
At that point, Cummings was happily immersed in her second year in UF’s Interdisciplinary Ecology program, a joint effort of the School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE) and the Florida Museum of Natural History. Her time was split between SNRE Fisheries and the museum, where she was part of the Invertebrate Paleontology Lab.
“My lab at UF was amazing,” says Cummings. “Everyone helped each other with field work, presentations and more. That’s not the case at every school, so I was grateful to go to one so supportive.”
To research her thesis, she had to become certified as a scientific diver, a skill that launched her career with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) Corals Group.
“My thesis was looking at molluscan communities in seagrass beds, so I did a lot of diving off the Gulf Coast of Florida,” says Cummings. “My advisor, Michal Kowalewski, also had other projects going on in the Florida springs and Bahamas, and those experiences were invaluable in my journey as a field scientist.”
Working part-time for the FWC Corals Group, Cummings collected some of the first tissue samples from diseased colonies in 2015. The following year, armed with a master’s degree, Cummings joined the FWC fulltime as a coral specialist for its Coral Reef Evaluation and Monitoring Project. She would spend the next three and a half years assessing and sampling coral colonies from Martin County to Key West.
And Now Her Watch Begins
In July 2018, NOAA, the FDEP and other agencies held an emergency meeting to combat the ongoing coral disease outbreak. With no remedy in sight, leaders agreed to launch search-and-rescue efforts. Scientists were tasked with removing approximately 5,000 healthy coral colonies from the wild and guarding them in aquatic “safe houses” as far away as Kansas and New Jersey, in a last-ditch effort to conserve the 20 species targeted by the disease.
Cummings was among the dedicated scientists involved in this ongoing Noah’s Ark effort, known as the Coral Rescue Project.
“It is an amazing endeavor that is analogous to taking the last rhinos out of the wild and putting them in a zoo safe from poachers,” says Cummings.
In September 2019, the FDEP hired Cummings as aquatic preserves manager for the Florida Keys, overseeing not just coral reefs but the entire ecosystem and public access. It is her “dream job,” she says.
“I’ve always wanted to manage a discrete parcel of land or water, and be in charge of what monitoring needs to happen there and how that science should influence the management actions,” she says. “It will be very satisfying to work on the same area, year after year, and see how I can improve it.”
From her new office overlooking a canal in Key Largo, Cummings has a wide view of her ongoing “to do” list. There is polluted water that has to be monitored. Propeller scars in seagrass beds that require repair. Visitors who need to be taught how to fish and harvest stone crabs sustainably. Every day she must convey complex scientific ideas to the general public, an ability she developed at UF, both in coursework and as a public presenter at the Florida Museum of Natural History.
“I would argue that being able to accurately portray your science to the public is just as important as the actual science you are doing,” explains Cummings.
Buoyed by Hope
One of an aquatic preserves manager’s most important tasks is picking up marine debris, a real hazard for coral, fish and other sea creatures. Most of the debris consists of abandoned lobster and crab traps, thousands of which are left in the Florida Keys every year,
“Miles and miles of trap line from derelict lobster and crab traps can wrap around corals and sponges,” she says. “The heavy traps themselves can roll around and damage corals, and lines and nets can entangle and drown marine life.”
In the last year she has found dead sea turtles, their necks stuck in old lobster trap lines.
And, of course, she must now monitor and defend her preserves against SCTLD itself. The disease’s aggressiveness has led some observers to abandon all hope for Florida’s once-thriving coral reefs.
But not Katy Cummings.
As a self-professed member of Ocean Optimism – a collaborative marine conservation movement that focuses on solutions rather than problems – Cummings wants her fellow Gators to know there is still much they can do to save our corals, even on dry land (see “Three Tips,” below).
And in the water, divers should stay informed about where SCTLD is present and decontaminate dive gear between dives. They can report coral conditions to the Southeast Florida Action Network.
UF/IFAS Extension Florida Sea Grant agents in South Florida are training recreational divers to survey the diseased coral. People can also volunteer with the Coral Restoration Foundation (Key Largo) and the Mote Marine Laboratory (Sarasota and Summerland Key) to maintain coral nurseries and plant new corals on the reefs.
Above all, Cummings says, people must not succumb to despair:
“Saving the coral may seem like a very daunting task, but Aldo Leopold has a good quote about it: ‘That the situation appears hopeless should not prevent us from doing our best.’
“Just because it seems like the reefs are in severe decline, it is never too late to save them. Our future depends on it.”