The coral reefs of the Florida Keys are a national and international treasure of biodiversity, flourishing with glowing life. Threatened by hurricanes, heat-induced bleaching, cold snaps, disease, marine debris, invasive and nuisance species, and increased human use, the degradation of these reefs has spurred an unprecedented, bold undertaking to restore them: Mission: Iconic Reefs.
This innovative undertaking is a collaboration between NOAA’s Office of Habitat Conservation and Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, the State of Florida, Coral Restoration Foundation, Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, The Florida Aquarium, The Nature Conservancy, Reef Renewal and University of Florida.
Together, the partners will restore nearly three million square feet of the Florida Reef Tract, about the size of 52 football fields, at seven key reef sites. It is one of the largest strategies ever proposed in the field of coral restoration.
Mission: Iconic Reefs builds off of decades of pioneering restoration efforts proven successful in the Florida Keys involving growing and transplanting corals, setting the stage for this large-scale, multi-phased restoration effort at seven reefs. The first phase focuses on restoring elkhorn and staghorn corals, fast-growing species that have not been affected by the current outbreak of stony coral tissue loss disease. The second phase will focus on incorporating resilient corals of other slower growing species and introducing grazer species that control invasive algae that smother and outcompete coral. The goal is to restore diversity and ecological function to the reefs by returning coral cover at target reef sites to a self-sustaining level.
The National Marine Sanctuary Foundation is working with NOAA and the other partners to plan and coordinate restoration activities, support research into reef restoration, and engage local business and residents in community stewardship activities that contribute to coral restoration success.
The Foundation hired an Iconic Reefs Restoration Implementation Manager, whose duties include coordinating between all partners, managing activities and implementation, and reporting out results. This Iconic Reefs Restoration Implementation Manager is currently setting annual goals and priorities and developing site implementation plans.
The Foundation is also leveraging its network of partners in South Florida and the Florida Keys, including its Florida Keys chapter, to support community stewardship projects that contribute to the success of coral restoration under Mission: Iconic Reefs. It is working with local Blue Star Dive Operators and Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to engage local Keys residents and businesses in stewardship activities. The Foundation invites people with a stake in the health of their planet to protect their own places in it.
The Foundation, in partnership with NOAA’s Office of Habitat Conservation, is working with local partners and academic institutions to support restoration research and developing new techniques and tools, including the introduction of grazers like the Caribbean king crab that keep reefs healthy and developing coordinated monitoring programs across the many national and local partners to track progress and meet restoration goals.
Finally, the Foundation also aims to transfer the lessons learned on this bold and unprecedented project to future large-scale restoration efforts, including coral reefs in the Pacific and the kelp forests along the West Coast.
Photo: Coral Restoration Foundation