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Coral Restoration Flourishing in the Florida Keys and Beyond

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Just like mighty forests can be re-planted after too much timber harvesting or natural disasters, the underwater coral reef can be re-planted with corals. When 98 percent of the staghorn and elkhorn coral — branching corals that are fast-growing — in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean were gone, avid divers and scientists knew something had to be done. These corals protect coastal areas and provide habitat for fish and invertebrates.

Ken Nedimyer, founder of the Coral Restoration Foundation, was living in Islamorada in the Florida Keys.  He was operating a live rock farm when he developed a way to restore the reefs. As a diver, he had noticed the deterioration of the Keys’ coral reefs. He founded the nonprofit ocean conservation organization in 2007.  CRF works to restore coral reefs, educate about oceans importance, and uses science to further research and monitoring. Staff has grown from one person to 14. Celebrating a decade of progress this year, the Coral Restoration Foundation has created innovative nursery and restoration techniques that now are implemented worldwide.

Coral Reef Restoration Volunteer Danielle Barnas, left, and Intern Megan Williams promoting the CRF at the Island Boat Show on Duck Key

A Bit of History

But decades ago, underwater habitat was dying. Due to multiple stressors in the late 1970s and early 1980s, previously dominant reef-building corals throughout the Florida Keys and the Caribbean declined dramatically. This left the remaining corals scattered and facing extinction. Through propagation techniques, developed and improved upon through the years, tens of thousands of corals are grown and maintained in multiple offshore coral tree nurseries before being strategically planted on the reefs.  “The idea of creating tree structures, developed in 2010, has been a game-changer,” Nedimyer said, adding that many reef restorers now use this system.

With the help of students, volunteers, scientists and donors, corals are successfully raised until they are “reef-ready;” then, they are planted onto the reef and monitored. “Our innovative techniques are [measurable] and they are making a difference for our oceans,” said Nedimyer, who was named a CNN Hero in 2012 and the Disney Worldwide Conservation Hero in 2014.

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Intern Megan Williams shows the coral tree nurseries that are planted on reefs

He has hope because of the program’s success. In 2003, the first staghorn corals were planted at a Keys reef named the Wellwood. Those six corals have branched into several thousand coral colonies. In 2009, there was cause for more celebration. The nursery-raised corals spawned, making scientific history.  This year, the organization expects to plant 5,000 to 6,000 corals and next year, 10,000.

Latest Projects

The group’s latest projects involve working with two types of brain corals, which feed on small drifting animals and receive nutrients provided by algae which live within their tissues.  In addition, they will focus on three types of star corals.  Star corals are found in most reef environments, and are the predominant coral at depths of 40–100 feet.

Upcoming Events

In the coming months, fundraising and coral planting events are scheduled. On April 1, the fifth annual “Raise the Reef” at the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo is featuring a reception with speakers followed by a sustainably-sourced dinner, cocktails, music and auctions benefiting the Coral Restoration Foundation. As Nedimyer said, grants help the foundation’s efforts but are targeted to certain projects. This event helps with operating costs.

In early June is the foundation’s annual Coralpalooza, held in observance of World Oceans Day. It is a coral planting extravaganza. Last year, more than 1,600 corals were planted in a day. Participants attended a presentation and received hands-on training. Then, they went on dive boats for a day of reef restoration and monitoring.

Plan Your Visit

The foundation’s visitor center in Key Largo recently was updated. It is open six days a week, staffed by volunteers. A 500-gallon tank appeals to youngsters and adults alike.  Information on the wall tells the story of the Coral Restoration Foundation from inception to the present.

To follow the progress of the foundation, visit www.coralrestoration.org.

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Jill Borski
Jill Borski
Jill Zima Borski lives in Islamorada, Fla. and is board chair of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association.

So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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