In December, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced in a press release, that they with partners were launching “Mission: Iconic Reefs”, a groundbreaking Florida Key Coral Reef restoration effort.
The project, calls for restoring nearly three million square feet of the Florida Reef Tract, about the size of 52 football fields, one of the largest strategies ever proposed in the field of coral restoration. Over the next year and beyond, NOAA will support this effort and work with outside partners to secure additional public and private funds.
Coral Reefs are underwater ridges created by a colonial organism called coral as it builds its own protective housing. They provide shelter, breeding grounds, and nursery habitat for many ocean inhabitants including ecologically and economically important species. They have one of the highest levels of biodiversity on the planet and protect shores from storms.
Over the past three decades, coral reefs in the western Atlantic and the Caribbean have been damaged by diseases, storms and coral predators as well as ocean warming, pollution and ocean acidification. Warm ocean temperatures have bleached out the coral and additional ecological decline has caused sea urchins and plant eating reef fish to vanish to be replaced by snails and worms that bore through coral skeletons. Reefs around the globe are being degraded by overfishing, pollution and coastal development. Many reefs are in decline with losses of up to 90 percent for some species.
In the Florida Keys coral coverage has been reduced to two percent, based on observations at the Iconic Reef sites, from its historical coverage of 25 to 40 percent. Coral cover is a measure of the proportion of reef surface covered by live stony coral rather than sponges, algae, or other organisms that make up the reef system. In general, 25 percent coral cover is considered necessary to support a healthy ecosystem and protect reef structure.
Over the past 15 years, pioneering restoration efforts involving growing and transplanting corals have proven successful in the Florida Keys, setting the stage for this new, large-scale restoration effort at seven reefs within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary: Carysfort Reef, Horseshoe Reef, Cheeca Rocks, Sombrero Reef, Newfound Harbor, Looe Key Reef, and Eastern Dry Rocks. These sites represent a diversity of habitats, support a variety of human uses, span the full geographic range of the Florida Keys, and show a high probability of success.
The restoration effort will incorporate a phased implementation approach over the next 20 years on the seven reefs. The first phase, designed to increase coral cover from two to 15 percent over 10 years, will focus on restoring elkhorn and staghorn corals, fast-growing species that have not been affected by the current outbreak of stony coral tissue loss disease,as well as begin to incorporate resilient corals of other slower growing species. At these sites, scientists will remove nuisance and invasive species like algae and snails, and reintroduce sea urchins and crabs to help keep the reefs clean and healthy.
The second phase, which is designed to return the reef to its historical coral cover of 25 percent, will focus on adding additional slower-growing, foundational coral species propagated from colonies that have survived or been rescued from bleaching and disease events. The goal is to restore diversity and ecological function to the reefs by returning coral cover at target reef sites to a self-sustaining level.
Photo courtesy of NOAA