With ‘Mission: Iconic Reefs’, NOAA aims to restore Florida Keys with climate-resilient corals

South of the Florida Keys lies a constellation of coral reefs—a biological and economic treasure found nowhere else in the mainland United States. Since 1990, these reefs have been protected by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, but coral health has still declined. The problems range from rising water temperatures to disease to damage caused by boaters.

Building these reefs has taken corals tens of thousands of years. Decimating them has taken humans mere decades. Since the late 1970s, healthy coral cover in the Florida Keys has fallen 90 percent.

To give these reefs a renewed chance at survival, NOAA is spearheading Mission: Iconic Reefs, one of the most ambitious reef-restoration efforts ever attempted worldwide. By 2040, the mission hopes to have restored 3 million square feet at 7 iconic reef locations—an area the size of 52 football fields—to at least 25 percent coral cover, which should be enough to allow them to repair themselves the rest of the way.

Colorful corals under the water surface

The effort involves dozens of partners: nurseries to grow millions of corals for replanting; labs and scientists to guide decisions about which corals to use and how to prepare them for conditions on the reef; technical divers to clean up dead, algae-covered reefs; and citizen-science volunteers to help plant corals and maximize their chances of survival through ongoing coral gardening—removing predators and pests, and restoring damaged corals.

But with continued climate warming and ocean acidification expected in the foreseeable future, finding and breeding corals tough enough to withstand heat stress and rising acidity must be part of the process. So, the project will take a phased approach, allowing some restoration work to begin immediately, while simultaneously supporting ongoing research.

Michon Scott, Climate.gov, 6 March 2023. Full article.

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