Coral reefs around the world are in decline because of climate change. In the Florida Keys, corals once covered as much as 40 percent of reef surfaces. They now cover just 2 percent, largely because of warming seas. Overall, the Florida Keys have lost 90 percent of their coral reefs in the last 40 years.
“Frankly, we cannot afford to let these declines continue. We cannot afford not to act,” Sarah Fangman, superintendent for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, told the Tampa Bay Times. “These systems are in a state that without our active help, they cannot recover fast enough.”
Coral reefs help shelter the coast from storm waves, provide habitat to a kaleidoscope of colorful marine species and attract tourism. The eventual goal of the restoration project is to bring coral coverage up to 25 percent in the seven reefs, covering a total of 70 acres. The restoration will begin by transplanting fast growing, disease-resistant coral species like elkhorn and staghorn corals. The plan also includes bringing back sea urchins, which suffered a mass die-off in the 1980s. Urchins help keep reefs healthy by munching away at algae that can smother coral polyps.
The seven sites chosen for restoration are popular destinations for snorkelers and divers, which officials hope will provide an economic return on the investment of restoring the reefs. Phase one of the project is expected to last 5 to 7 years and cost roughly $97 million. The second phase would take another 10 to 12 years, aiming to reach 25 percent coral cover at the seven 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,’” Tom Moore, who heads NOAA’s coral restoration program, told the Tampa Bay Times.
The project will expand and coordinate with existing efforts at its seven restoration sites. For example, six of the seven reefs have existing restoration projects led by the Coral Restoration Foundation.
“Coral reefs are very resilient,” Jessica Levy, of the Coral Restoration Foundation, told the Tampa Bay Times. “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.”