NOAA Launches Mission: Iconic Reefs with Partners

    An ocean-based coral nursery operated by the Coral Restoration Foundation in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Species like staghorn coral (pictured) are grown in these nurseries and transplanted to reefs. Credit: Coral Restoration Foundation

    Groundbreaking Florida Keys Project Aims to Restore Seven Florida Keys Reefs

    The Florida Keys is one of the most diverse marine ecosystems the world over and is beloved by scuba explorers for its stunning blue waters, balmy weather, and intricately woven reef systems: delicate ecologies beneath the waves, each one carrying a unique signature. As reef systems throughout the globe have seen a sharp decline over the years, protecting this important environment has become a major concern for scientific organizations and coastal communities. Answering the clarion call of the sea is the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, operating under the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, with its latest program aimed at reversing decades-long destruction: Mission: Iconic Reefs.

    By John Tapley

    Mission: Iconic Reefs employs a large-scale strategy to restore and preserve seven coral reef Keys sites, covering almost three million square miles of the Florida Reef Tract: a 300-mile stretch of vital ecosystems along Florida’s southeastern edge, 200 miles of which are in the Florida Keys. The mission involves nurturing and transplanting corals, particularly fast-growing elkhorn and staghorn corals, to increase the coral coverage and lay a groundwork for future projects. Mission: Icon Reefs is a longterm project (fixing a problem that has developed for 50 years), with its first phase slated to span over the next 20 years. Phase two will involve introducing slow-growing foundational coral species, which have been proven to withstand sea bleaching and disease.

    The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is working alongside several partners, many of which have been deeply involved in coral restoration, to meet these goals and gather volunteers. These partners include the State of Florida, Coral Restoration Foundation, Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, The Nature Conservancy, Reef Renewal, and the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation.

    One of the seven iconic reef sites, Cheeca Rocks, is dominated by large populations of star corals and other boulder corals. Credit: FKNMS/NOAA

    We spoke with Sarah Fangman, superintendent of NOAA’s Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary on the plight facing the Florida Keys reef system, and how Mission: Icon Reefs hopes to combat this persistent issue.

    John Tapley (JT): Thank you for agreeing to meet with me this morning, Sarah. Please take us to the beginning: what is happening to reefs in the Florida Keys?

    Sarah Fangman (SF): Florida Keys reefs, like all reefs around the world, have been suffering and declining for decades. This is due to a whole host of factors: some are local, some regional, some global. We’ve seen extremes in temperature both in the warm and cold end of the spectrum that has caused stress to our reefs. We’ve seen regional issues – water quality issues. South Florida has a lot of flow, timing, quantity of water movements off the mainland an onto the reefs that has caused significant disruption in our water patterns. Locally, we’ve had issues with impacts like anchor damage or people touching and stepping on the reefs.

    More recently, reefs in the Florida Keys, and the entirety of the Florida reef tract, have been suffering from an unprecedented coral disease outbreak. I use that word intentionally: this is a disease event unlike anything we’ve seen in the Florida Keys or anywhere in the world. This disease event (and we still don’t exactly know what it is) is affecting almost half the corals on our reef tract. It’s started going into its fifth year, and that’s unusual: typically, disease events are much quicker. It’s covering a huge area, almost the entirety of the Florida reef tract… and in some species, it is causing 100 percent mortality so if the coral gets it, it dies. That’s also unusual: typically, these diseases might affect part of the coral but not kill it entirely. This disease is much more lethal than others. That is why our reefs are particularly in difficult condition now, and therefore need direct, ambitious, and bold intervention.

    JT: What measures are NOAA taking through Mission: Iconic Reefs? How does this mission differ from similar coral restoration programs?

    SF: The seven iconic reef project is to add seven locations in the Florida Keys and attempt and undertake significant hands-on restoration of these reefs: get in the water and prepare these sites for planting corals and maintain them like a garden. Coral restoration is something that has been happening in the Florida Keys for over a decade now and a lot of the techniques people are using around the world were pioneered here in the Florida Keys. The problem is we haven’t been doing it at a scale that can keep up with the decline. We’re talking about stepping up the efforts we’ve undertaken to date at a much larger scale and doing much more of a comprehensive approach.

    In the past, what restoration practitioners have done is grow the coral on land-based nurseries or in offshore nurseries and plant the coral, then monitor it a little bit but largely leave it to its own devices. This strategy calls for more of the gardening approach: not just planting it and walking away but doing more to make sure where we’re putting this is really ready to thrive as a new reef system: stabilizing the habitat; removing competitive species overtaking potential habitat; and then, once we plant the corals and they start to grow, actively, regularly, go back and essentially be rangers where we’re taking away debris or removing new predators. It’s much more active maintenance of these areas.

    The strategy calls for a number of different corals. A reef system is a diverse system in its natural state, meaning there’s a number of different species that live there. Ultimately, that is our goal to outplant, propagate, and grow a variety of species. Right now we have the capacity to know [about] the nurseries: to executive outplanting of a few species we can start right away and do in larger scale; and use species of corals not currently affected by this disease. Why in the world would you plant corals in an area where disease is ravaging the community? We’re going to start with using coral species that we have a lot of experience with, are not susceptible, and grow really fast. Acroporas, staghorn and elkhorn corals, will be the bulk of what we do in the first phase of this project.

    It’s taken more than 50 years for these coral systems to decline to where they’re at. We can’t turn that around overnight. This is a decades-long strategy. The first phrase focuses on acroporas, and a couple of other species we’re propagating. As this process moves forward, we will add additional corals into the mix. Ultimately, we intend to outplant a whole variety of coral species.

    Two divers work together to replant staghorn coral to a reef using epoxy. Marine epoxy is a frequently-used method for adhering nursery-grown corals to reefs. Credit: A. Neufeld/Coral Restoration Foundation

    JT: What were the determining factors in choosing different reef sites?

    SF: A lot of factors went into how we selected those seven. First of all, we wanted to span the range of the main Florida Keys so we didn’t focus in too small of a geographic area in case something else happens like Hurricane Irma – another hurricane will come. If we focus the entirety of our restoration in one small place and something happens, we [open] ourselves to have more risk. We wanted to pick sites that span the full Florida Keys; so we’ve got sites in the Upper Keys, Middle Keys, and Lower Keys.

    We also wanted to pick places that were iconic: the places that people have known and been snorkeling and diving at for a really long time; we picked places like Looe Key and Carysfort Reef. We also wanted to make sure we picked places we had some history of doing restoration, or if we hadn’t already done restoration there, we’d have good evidence and information that would suggest we could be successful at these places.

    JT: How does the project work with each particular reef?

    SF: Let’s talk about Looe Key Reef. One hundred percent of that reef is not all the same. Reefs are very different. In one part of the reef we would want to plant and grow acroporas, and in another, perhaps in a deeper reef, we would have a different assemblage of coral species. We’re thoughtful about not just what reefs we were going to restore but on different parts of the reef: the reef crest, the floor reef, the deep reef, the back reef. Each of those might have a different combination of corals in a natural setting. Our plan includes replicating what nature would do in different parts of a given reef. It’s not a single formula, “X size of an area of a coral reef equals Y number of corals in this mixture.” It tailors to each site and each subsection.

    JT: Who are the organizations working with NOAA on Mission: Iconic Reefs? When will it begin?

    SF: It’s important to note that this is a partnership. While NOAA brought everyone together, it involves partners who have been doing restoration in these waters for quite some time: The Coral Restoration Foundation, Mote Marine Lab, Reef Renewal, The Nature Conservancy, the State of Florida: these entities that are a part of this have been doing restoration and now that we’ve articulated this strategy, they are pivoting their work to already implement these proposals. They can’t do everything without an infusion of additional resources: there have been some resources identified and directed toward this, [but] we don’t have the full program funded. We’re absolutely starting, with what resources we have or are coming in, to begin the different parts of this.

    Elkhorn coral transplanted to Carysfort Reef by the Coral Restoration Foundation in 2017 (left), and the same colonies in 2019, after two years of growth (right). Elkhorn coral is a fast-growing species that creates important, three-dimensional structure on Florida reefs. Credit: A. Neufeld/Coral Restoration Foundation

    JT: Thank you for sharing these details with our readers. Is there a message you’d like to share with them before we conclude our conversation?

    SF: Our intention is to really engage with the community on this. These are not meant to be museums (they’re too precious to interact with). We want people to help us execute this, to be those reef rangers helping us keep an eye on and protect these sites; and we want these to be places people can go and enjoy and see what can happen when you invest some effort and resources into helping turn things around on the reef. We need this process to be something the public can help and support, and also enjoy.

    Mission: Iconic Reefs is currently laying the groundwork for volunteer opportunities. Parties interested in volunteering their time can contact one of the aforementioned project partners to lend a hand in this critical endeavor.

    For more details on the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Mission: Iconic Reefs, visit