A three-year effort to secure over 60,000 coral fragments to the seafloor in the Florida Keys has begun. NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and its partners are working together in the first of several large-scale efforts. The project, aptly titled Mission: Iconic Reefs, is an effort to restore seven prominent coral reefs within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. This is one of the largest investments in reef restoration anywhere in the world.

The Situation

In the past 40 years, the coral reefs in the Keys have suffered and lost approximately 90 percent of their corals. The loss of habitat is not due to one particular issue, but rather multiple interconnected factors. The local impact of coral reef loss stems from ship groundings, mislaid boat anchors, overfishing, tropical storms, and reef diseases. Globally, warmer sea temperatures, ocean acidification, runoff and pollution, and extremely low tides contribute to coral bleaching, which ultimately kills the coral.

The loss of these reefs could create an avalanche of unfortunate outcomes ecologically and economically. Healthy coral reefs provide habitat to over 6,000 different species of commercially and recreationally important fish, sea turtles, and lobster. In the Keys, one out of two jobs is connected to the marine economy. The 5 million annual visitors contribute a whopping $2.4 billion in sales for the region each year. The barrier reef also acts as a line of defense against tropical storms.

“Florida Keys’ iconic reefs are the basis for thriving ecosystems underwater and the critical tourism economy on dry land,” said Kris Sarri, president and CEO of the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation. “This project will transform how we approach coral restoration.”

The Solution

Over the next decade, scientists and students will transplant and tend to the seven selected reefs. Informed by years of heavy research, successful trials, and expertise from coral scientists and restoration practitioners, NOAA and its partners believe this plan will put the Keys’ reefs back on track toward recovery while continuing to provide economic benefit to the community.

Map displaying the seven reefs where coral will be transplanted in Mission: Iconic Reefs.
A map showing the location of the seven iconic reef sites proposed as focal areas for large-scale restoration. Image: NOAA

Step 1

The coral sites must be prepared. Invasive and nuisance species, such as algae, will be removed. These are organisms that compete with coral for space and smother coral larvae.

Step 2

Resilient and fast-growing coral species, such as elkhorn coral, will be transplanted from ocean nurseries. In these nurseries, corals grow on structures that mimic tree limbs. Once appropriate size, they are trimmed off and relocated to the designated reef.

Step 3

Introduce algae grazing species to the transplanted population of elkhorn, star, pillar, brain, and staghorn corals. These are also known as stony coral species.

Step 4

Continue to introduce other stony coral varieties and natural grazers to improve biodiversity and ecosystem health.

The steps are organized into two phases spanning over 20 years. Phase 1 of the mission anticipates raising 15% of the coral within the next seven years. The estimated cost is $97 million. Phase 2 will be an additional 10 to 12 years. There is no cost estimate yet.

Diver cleans off coral in one of the oceanic nurseries
A diver cleans algae and other nuisance species from coral “tree” structures in a Coral Restoration Foundation nursery. These structures are used to grow staghorn coral (pictured) and other coral species in ocean-based nurseries. Credit: A. Neufeld/Coral Restoration Foundation

“Coral restoration is about buying time and stabilizing the system to give it a chance to restore itself,” said Tom Moore, the NOAA coral restoration team lead. “We still have global challenges we have to address, but if we just wait for those global challenges, we won’t have reefs left. So, this is our part in making sure we still have reefs left in the Florida Keys in the next 100 years.”

This first-of-its-kind approach will bring resiliency back to the critical reef regions. Thousands of different fish, turtle, and lobster species will directly benefit from the habitat regeneration. Protecting our coral reefs supports the people, places, and aquatic populations that rely on their health.

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