National Marine Sanctuary Foundation Announces Grants to Scale Up Coral Restoration Through Mission: Iconic Reefs


$1 million in funding will support coral nurseries and reef-cleaning grazers in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

Silver Spring, Md. – March 3, 2022 – The National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, NOAA’s Office of Habitat Conservation, and NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program announced the recipients of 10 grants totaling more than $1 million to drastically scale up efforts to restore the coral reefs of the Florida Keys through Mission: Iconic Reefs.

Mission: Iconic Reefs is an innovative initiative spearheaded by Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to restore nearly 3,000,000 square feet of the Florida Reef Tract, about the size of 52 football fields, at seven key reef sites – one of the largest strategies ever proposed for coral restoration. The grants will build capacity to undertake the massive coral restoration initiative over the next two decades by supporting coral propagation used to restore reefs and raising native grazing species such as Caribbean king crabs and long-spined sea urchins to re-introduce onto the reefs and help keep them clean and healthy.

The funds will support organizations with a demonstrated expertise in coral and/or grazers restoration that are engaging in restoration at one or more of the seven Mission: Iconic Reefs sites. Grant recipients include: the Coral Restoration Foundation, Florida Aquarium, Florida International University, Florida Sea Base–Boy Scouts of America, Florida State University, Mote Marine Laboratory, Reef Renewal USA, Smithsonian Institution, and University of Florida.

“Mission: Iconic Reefs is an unprecedented opportunity to safeguard our nation’s only continental barrier reef. It will require expanded capacity and strong partnerships to reach the ambitious goal of restoring 3 million square feet of reefs,” said Kris Sarri, president and CEO of the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation. “The investments we are making today will benefit the Florida Keys for years into the future by strengthening resiliency. We are proud to be a partner with NOAA’s Office of Habitat Conservation in this groundbreaking effort.”

“Mission: Iconic Reefs relies on the collaboration and contributions of numerous partners,” said Chris Doley, Chief of the NOAA Office of Habitat Conservation’s Restoration Center. “We are dedicated to supporting all of our continued work toward achieving the goals of this ambitious effort. Together, we can make a difference in preserving the future of coral reefs in the Florida Keys.”

Mission: Iconic Reefs builds on decades of pioneering restoration efforts proven successful in the Florida Keys, setting the stage for this large-scale, multi-phased restoration effort. The first phase begins with 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 can smother and outcompete coral. The goal is to restore diversity and ecological function to the reefs by returning coral cover at the seven reef sites to a self-sustaining level.

Over the last 40 years, coral reefs in the Florida Keys suffered dramatic declines. Nearly 90 percent of the live corals that once dominated the reefs have been lost.

Losing coral reefs could result in cascading effects to the Florida Keys region’s economy and culture. This unique habitat generates billions of dollars in recreation and tourism for the state of Florida. In 2019, the Foundation released a study showing that economic activity generated in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is responsible for contributing $4.4 billion and 43,000 jobs across the state of Florida. Healthy coral reefs provide habitat for recreationally and commercially important fish and a myriad of other animals. Coral reefs such as those in the Florida Keys are effective in mitigating coastal hazard risks and increasing coastal resilience. They provide substantial protection against coastal storms and storm surges by reducing wave energy by an average of 97 percent.



Coral Restoration Foundation

Increasing Keys-wide coral restoration capacity through enhanced transport and nursery infrastructure – $147,074

This project addresses two vital capacity needs to support the scaling up of Coral Restoration Foundation’s restoration efforts Keys-wide. It will focus on (1) developing an enhanced coral transport and mobile life-support system for relocating corals between nurseries and restoration sites and (2) expanding infrastructure in a coral production nursery near Looe Key, in support of Mission: Iconic Reef coral restoration goals in the Lower-Keys.

The Florida Aquarium

Increasing juvenile coral rearing capacity for Mission: Iconic Reefs – $84,093

To increase The Florida Aquarium’s capacity to provide genetically diverse coral larvae and juvenile corals to Mission: Iconic Reefs, this project provides additional personnel support for the 2022 coral spawning season—wherein corals actively reproduce the next generations—and two new shallow rearing systems for juvenile corals.

Florida International University

Mission: Iconic Reefs Capacity Building for Caribbean King Crab –$94,799

A cornerstone of Mission: Iconic Reefs is habitat revitalization through the managed removal of deleterious macroalgae. FIU’s studies demonstrated that the most effective native grazer and best candidate for large-scale mariculture is the Caribbean King Crab. Building upon long-standing research on this species and capitalizing on existing facilities, FIU will continue crab mariculture development begun in the last year with seed funding from the Foundation.

Florida State University 

Increasing long-spined urchin production to restore Florida Diadema populations –$81,507

The proposed project builds capacity for the production and restocking of long-spined urchin (Diadema antillarum) in the Florida Keys by improving in-situ collection of post-metamorphic long-spined urchin recruits and the initiation of a pilot program to rear juvenile urchins past a major population bottleneck in inshore multi-trophic mariculture pens with mountainous star coral (Orbicella faveolata) fragments.

Mote Marine Lab

Increasing Mote’s coral restoration capacity to support Mission Iconic Reefs –$253,654

This project will support the establishment of a land-based coral nursery in Key Largo as well as a boat to access M:IR sites and in-water coral nurseries of the Upper Florida Keys. This infrastructure is essential for upscaling the production of key reef-building coral species necessary to achieve the Phase 1 cover and density targets of the M:IR project plan.

Scaling up Mission: Iconic Reefs grazer production with a regional hatchery facility –$137,294

The funds will support the establishment of a regional hatchery facility at Mote Aquaculture Research Park in Sarasota, FL, that will produce cultured grazers—namely, Caribbean king crab—to meet Mission: Iconic Reefs goals. Additionally, Mote will establish an experimental hatchery system at its Summerland Key Facility, the Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research & Restoration, to refine and optimize culture conditions to maximize production efficiency.

Reef Renewal USA

Reef Renewal’s Upscaling Reef Restoration – $170,785

Reef Renewal will expand the capacity of marine operations via addressing critical vessel needs for restoration work and introducing redundancy and diversity—through increased nursery infrastructure and additional coral species representation—across all three of Reef Renewal’s regional nurseries. Increasing both marine operations and nursery infrastructure will enable Reef Renewal to rear and outplant large numbers of corals in support of Mission: Iconic Reefs restoration goals.

Florida Sea Base – Boy Scouts of America

Brinton Environmental Center’s Ex-situ Coral Nursery Inventory Expansion/ Alterations –$57,955

To assist with Florida Keys’ restoration efforts, this project will address maintaining and adapting the Brinton Environmental Center’s ex-situ coral nursery. The primary focus of the nursery is to shift production to slower growing star and brain corals needed for Phase 1B & 2 of Mission: Iconic Reefs, as well as expand the genetic diversity of each species grown within the nursery. This will be done by 1) improving the life-support system, 2) hiring full-time nursery staff, and 3) increasing nursery inventory.

Smithsonian Institution

Building capacity for elkhorn coral (A. palmata) population management –$42,852

Restoring a sustainable wild population requires using critical genetic resources in a demographically-sound manner – that is, implementing a science-based population management strategy. Mission: Iconic Reefs currently needs a stronger genetic management plan for A. palmata and developing a successful one at this scale is a complex, multi-year enterprise. The present project builds capacity for this population management strategy by collaboratively producing a three-part plan to design and implement this strategy.

University of Florida

Diadema aquaculture capacity building –$49,987

This project will support personnel to continue capacity building for the most successful Diadema antillarum aquaculture program to date. University of Florida developed and published culture protocols for this difficult-to-rear species, and raised approximately 1,250 juvenile urchins to date, with many distributed to partners and 200 recently receiving veterinary health certification for experimental release. Additional capacity will complete proof-of-concept which is capable of attracting significant infrastructure investments needed to scale up production.



The National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, established in 2000, is the official non-profit partner of the National Marine Sanctuary System. The Foundation directly supports America’s national marine sanctuaries through our mission to protect species, conserve ecosystems and preserve cultural and maritime heritage. We accomplish our mission through community stewardship and engagement programs, on-the-water conservation projects, public education and outreach programs, and scientific research and exploration. The Foundation fosters innovative projects that are solution-oriented, scalable and transferable, and develop strategic partnerships that promote the conservation and recovery of species and their habitats. Learn more at 

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is one of 16 marine protected areas that make up the National Marine Sanctuary System. Administered by NOAA, a federal agency, and jointly managed with the State of Florida, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary protects 3,800 square miles of waters surrounding the Florida Keys, from south of Miami westward to encompass the Dry Tortugas, excluding Dry Tortugas National Park. The shoreward boundary of the sanctuary is the mean highwater mark, which means once you set foot in Keys waters, you have entered the sanctuary.  Visit


Contact: Chip Weiskotten 

Director of Strategic Communications