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Coral Restoration Beginning in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

In the spirit of this year’s Earth Day theme “Restore our Earth,” NOAA and partners are beginning a three-year effort to outplant more than 60,000 fragments of nursery-raised coral at Eastern Dry Rocks Sanctuary Preservation Area off the coast of Key West, Florida. This is the first large-scale endeavor dedicated to Mission: Iconic Reefs, the unprecedented effort to restore seven coral reefs within Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

“Outplanting at this unprecedented scale is one of many immediate actions needed to address the rapid decline in our treasured coral reefs,” said Ben Friedman, acting NOAA Administrator. “The Florida Keys has become a world leader in coral restoration with new techniques for addressing threats and accelerating coral growth, thanks to an unprecedented collaboration between NOAA, our partners, and a community of stewards.”

Eastern Dry Rocks contains a concentration of bank reef habitats that are ecologically and economically important to the Florida Keys. The elkhorn and staghorn corals that are being transplanted across more than nine acres include a high number of distinct genetic strains representing the historical diversity found on these reefs, and genotypes that have exhibited the highest survival and growth rates. Practitioner partners that will assist in the outplanting grew the corals in their respective nurseries over six to eight months.

NOAA and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation awarded a $5 million grant through the National Coastal Resilience Fund to the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, in partnership with Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium and Coral Restoration Foundation™ to restore Eastern Dry Rocks. The grant is the largest one-time investment since the initiative was announced in December 2019.

Scott Winters, CEO of Coral Restoration Foundation, said “Coral Restoration Foundation has already begun a massive expansion of our Coral Tree Nursery in Key West to support the restoration of Eastern Dry Rocks. Since January 2021, we have now replenished the site with more than 1,085 genetically diverse staghorn and elkhorn corals and are well on our way to hitting our target of 7,350 by the end of the year. Knowing that we are not doing this alone, that this work is part of a much larger, coordinated effort, gives us a renewed sense of hope for the future of the Florida Keys.”

“We are excited to press forward with the application of Mote’s innovative science-based coral restoration of genetically-resilient corals on such a broad scale at Eastern Dry Rocks,” said Michael P. Crosby, Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium President & CEO. “Mission: Iconic Reefs is one of the largest reef restoration efforts in the world, and the collaborative efforts of Mote, NOAA, and our partners is unprecedented in this field. Florida’s Coral Reef is vital to our environment and economy, so Mote will continue to maximize our restoration efforts in support of Mission Iconic Reefs whenever possible.”

In later stages of the project, students and faculty of College of the Florida Keys will also help reintroduce thousands of herbivores, like the Caribbean King Crab, to the site to serve as natural grazers that help sustain a healthy ecosystem.

“In many ways, Eastern Dry Rocks serves as a test case for the other six Iconic Reef sites—from research and development on grazers to refinement of methodologies for maintenance and preparation,” said Sarah Fangman, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Superintendent. “Lessons learned from Eastern Dry Rocks will form the basis for standard operating procedures and implementation plans of future Iconic Reef sites.”

Informed by years of research, successful trials, and expertise from dozens of coral scientists and restoration practitioners, NOAA believes this scientific and collaborative restoration plan will put Florida’s reefs on track for recovery and demonstrate how restoration can support a vibrant, sustainable, local economy and help buffer communities from coastal storms. The reef track in the Keys attracts millions of visitors per year, accounting for more than $2 billion of economic impact.

“Florida Keys’ iconic reefs, including Eastern Dry Rocks, are the basis for thriving ecosystems underwater and the critical tourism economy on dry land,” said Kris Sarri, president and CEO of the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation. “This project will transform how we approach coral restoration.”

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NOAA introduced Mission: Iconic Reefs as a 20-year initiative to restore nearly 3,000,000 sq. feet, about the size of 52 football fields, of the Florida Reef Tract – one of the largest strategies ever proposed for coral restoration. Mission: Iconic Reefs is the product of a public/private partnership between NOAA, Coral Restoration Foundation, Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium, Reef Renewal, The Florida Aquarium, National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, UF/IFAS, College of the Florida Keys, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and The Nature Conservancy, among others.

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Foundation 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 high water mark, which means once you set foot in Keys waters, you have entered the sanctuary.

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 America’s 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 marinesanctuary.org.

Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium, based in Sarasota, Florida, has conducted marine research on Florida’s Gulf Coast since its founding as a small, one-room shark laboratory in 1955. Since then, Mote has grown to over 20 research and conservation programs that span the spectrum of marine science: aquaculture systems that alleviate growing pressures on wild fish populations; red tide research that works to inform the public and mitigate the adverse effects of red tide with innovative technologies; marine animal conservation and rehabilitation programs that protect animals such as sea turtles, manatees, and dolphins; and much more. Mote Aquarium, accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, is open 365 days per year.

Mote’s Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research & Restoration (IC2R3) on Summerland Key is a global research epicenter where Mote scientists and colleagues from around the world work to advance the understanding of the Florida Keys’ intricate and precious marine ecosystems, while also implementing major science-based coral restoration initiatives. Mote scientists and partners at IC2R3 contribute to global research regarding coral disease, restoration, and genetics, as well as a myriad of other important marine topics: stone crab fisheries, ecosystem dynamics and resilience, ocean acidification and its effects, and more.

Learn more at mote.org or connect with @motemarinelab on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and more.

Coral Restoration Foundation™ (CRF™) manages the largest coral restoration effort in the world. Our core mission is to restore coral reefs, to educate others on the importance of our oceans, and to use science to further coral research and coral reef monitoring techniques.

Through large-scale cultivation, outplanting and monitoring of genetically diverse corals, CRF™ works to support the reefs’ natural recovery processes. We engage and empower others in the mission with dive programs, educational activities, scientific collaborations, and outreach.

For more information, and to find out how you can get involved, visit www.coralrestoration.org.

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