Restora­tion in works on ‘iconic’ Keys reefs NOAA project tar­gets 7, with fi­nal goal of 25% co­ral cover at the sites

Orlando Sentinel - - LOCAL & STATE - By Nancy Klin­gener

For decades, most of the news about co­ral reefs has been pretty gloomy. Now the Florida Keys Na­tional Ma­rine Sanc­tu­ary is launch­ing a new mis­sion to bring back a few of those reefs.

Reefs along the Keys once com­monly had co­ral cover of 30% to 40% of its sur­faces. Those healthy reefs pro­tected the Keys from storms, nur­tured fish and lob­sters and helped cre­ate a thriv­ing tourism in­dus­try that re­lies heav­ily on div­ing, snor­kel­ing and fish­ing.

Now the co­ral cover is more like 2% on a lot of the reefs that still draw tourists.

“Frankly, we can­not af­ford to let these de­clines con­tinue. We can­not af­ford not to act,” Sarah Fang­man, the sanc­tu­ary su­per­in­ten­dent. “These sys­tems are in a state that with­out our ac­tive help, they can­not recover fast enough.”

The Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion, the agency that over­sees the sanc­tu­ary, wants to re­store seven reefs along the Keys reef tract from Key Largo to Key West.

Those reefs range from Carys­fort off Key Largo to East­ern Dry Rocks off Key West. They are among the most pop­u­lar with divers and snorkel­ers. The new plan calls them “iconic.”

“These are Amer­ica’s reefs,” Fang­man said. “We must pro­tect them and we must re­build them.”

The de­cline of co­ral reefs is blamed on sev­eral causes, many of them re­gional or global. That in­cludes cli­mate change and water qual­ity. And the al­ready ail­ing reefs are more sus­cep­ti­ble to dam­age from storms and boat ground­ings.

“This is not some­thing that we can do with­out ad­dress­ing those global chal­lenges,” said Tom Moore, who leads NOAA’s co­ral restora­tion ef­forts. “But if we just wait for those global chal­lenges, we’re not go­ing to have reefs left.”

The first phase of the project is ex­pected to last five to seven years and cost about $97 mil­lion.

“It is a big in­vest­ment,” Moore said. “But in the big scheme, of the eco­nomic driv­ers that this sys­tem has, it’s not that big of an in­vest­ment. It’s some­thing that’s tan­gi­ble and achiev­able.”

Fast-grow­ing corals like elkhorn and staghorn will be trans­planted first. Those are also corals that are not af­fected by stony co­ral tis­sue loss dis­ease.

“We’ve lost a sys­tem over 50 years. We’re not go­ing to get that sys­tem back overnight,” Moore said.

The sec­ond phase of the project would last an­other 10 to 12 years. The goal is to even­tu­ally get to 25% co­ral cover at the restora­tion sites.

“I think suc­cess, for me, is go­ing to be when we have peo­ple that come to dive on these reefs, come to snorkel on these reefs and get in and go to one of these sites and hop out of the water and say, ‘Wow that looks a lot bet­ter than it looked five years ago,’ ” Moore said.

The project is co­or­di­nat­ing and ex­pand­ing reef restora­tion ef­forts that the sanc­tu­ary and non­profit groups have been work­ing on for years in the Keys.

The Co­ral Reef Restora­tion Foun­da­tion, based in Key Largo, is al­ready work­ing on restora­tion projects at six of the seven iconic reefs se­lected by NOAA.

“Co­ral reefs are very re­silient,” said Jes­sica Levy, restora­tion pro­gram man­ager for the Foun­da­tion. “They’re par­tic­u­larly re­silient to re­ally lo­cal im­pacts so if you can man­age for the lo­cal im­pacts, that ac­tu­ally helps them to have a bet­ter chance against those global, big­ger ones that take a lot more ef­fort to try to mit­i­gate against.”

Levy said it’s also im­por­tant for the lo­cal tourism in­dus­try to ac­knowl­edge the de­cline in corals over the years, and face it head-on with projects like this.

“I feel for the in­dus­try. There’s a lot of eco­nomic value on our co­ral reefs and I un­der­stand it’s scary to ad­mit how bad it is,” she said. “But gloss­ing over it doesn’t do any­one any fa­vors. It’s only go­ing to get worse if we don’t ad­mit that there’s a rea­son restora­tion is needed.”

The restora­tion will in­clude grow­ing corals in nurs­eries and plant­ing them off­shore. They also want to bring back sea urchins, which graze al­gae from co­ral. Sea urchins suf­fered from a mass die-off in the early ’80s and the pop­u­la­tion has not re­cov­ered.


A diver cleans al­gae from staghorn co­ral at a Co­ral Reef Restora­tion Foun­da­tion nurs­ery.


Mostly dead elkhorn co­ral at Looe Key, one of the seven Keys reefs tar­geted for restora­tion.

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