Coral Reef Restoration

Florida Keys is home to the only living barrier reef in North America, and part of the third largest reef in the entire world.  The Florida reef tract is 358 miles long from the Dry Tortugas to St.Lucie Inlet, leaving 2/3 of the reef tract in the Florida Keys. According to USA Today, more than 500 million people depend on coral reefs for tourism income, while more than 30 million people rely on coral reefs for their food source.  They are not only  important to humans, but essential to marine life.  Coral reefs make up less than 1% of the ocean floor.  Despite their small foot print,  more than 4,000 species of fish and  a quarter of all marine species use coral reefs  for spawning, nursery grounds, refuge, and feeding.

In the past 30 years, 92% of Florida Keys indigenous corals have died. Below is a clear example.

Craysfort Reef, Florida Keys 1980
Craysfort Reef, Florida Keys 2011

Corals reproduce in two ways: sexually through spawning aggregations, and asexually through fragmentation.  Fragmentation is the process where a coral fragment breaks off, reattaches, and grows.  the processes are comparable to taking a slip from a land plant and growing a new plant.  But in the case of corals, fragmentation is a process that happens naturally in the wild.

Mote Marine laboratory is taking advantage of fragmentation to multiply the number of corals that can be reattached to the reef.  Using micro fragments from naturally occurring corals, new corals can be grown at a nursery site under controlled conditions.  When they reach a viable size, they can then be “planted” onto the reef.

Mote Marine Laboratory has been perfecting the process of fragmentation and regrowth.  A great deal of the effort has been directed towards two of the most critically endangered species – Staghorn and Elkhorn coral.  To date, the effort has been conducted on a scientific scale using small demonstration sites.   Below are some pictures, and a video of the project in action.

The Project

KeysKeeper believes that there is an interesting opportunity to push the technology by doing two things.

First, by taking all the species of coral that Mote has worked with successfully (there are at present at least 5 species with more on the way) and reattaching an entire grouping of corals to an area of dead coral structure.

Second, by taking a much larger area – one measured in acres – and undertaking a reskinning effort at a larger scale.  This will start to expose the issues that will attend the ultimate challenge of re-skinning coral reefs at scale.

These efforts are helped by the simple fact that dead coral leaves a recognizable footprint.  Using that footprint, corals can be reestablished in exactly the same area that they originally grew.  In this way, the ecology of the original reef is reproduced at the same time as the new coral is reattached.