- Sponsored -
Share article

Coral rescuers working to save Florida’s beleaguered reef ravaged by disease and a sweltering ocean heat wave last summer are getting a $9 million boost from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

The money will come from $195 million awarded to the National Park Service earlier this year for climate restoration and resilience work. While some money will go toward projects, a share will also pay for much-needed workers, Department of Interior Assistant Secretary Shannon Estenoz said Friday.

“This work is labor intensive. It’s human-intensive. That doesn’t mean we don’t need equipment and other projects,” Estenoz told WLRN. “But part of it is going to go into human capacity and making sure that we have enough hands on deck.”

Last summer an unprecedented ocean heat wave swept through South Florida waters and ignited a bleaching event that quickly spread across the Florida Keys. Workers raced to retrieve nursery coral, but struggled to keep up with high temperatures searing the reef from August through October, twice as long as any period on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

READ MORE: Climate scientists are alarmed by record water temperatures off Florida’s coast

By the time the heat wave subsided, just 22% of the nursery coral — part of a yearslong effort to revive a shrinking reef that has lost about 90% of its coral over the last four decades — had survived.

“This came shockingly fast,” said Joanna Walczak, the administrator for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s coral protection and restoration program told the South Florida Ecosystem Task Force on Friday. “We’ve had plans in place since the early 2000s. But this came faster, hotter and stronger.”

- Sponsored -

While scientists have long warned that restoration work is only a band aid to keep the reef alive until climate change can be controlled, the summer carnage suggests it may be time to take a harder look.

Bleached staghorn coral at Sombrero Reef in the Florida Keys in July 2023
Bleached staghorn coral at Sombrero Reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in July 2023.

“Last summer was — you take a bad situation and really commit to learning from it. And what the team said to me was that they have and they’ve learned what works,” Estenoz said. “They learned that we do have to have a broad toolbox. That includes strategies that we think are going to be the most long-lasting strategies.”

Up first is trying to figure out why some of the lab-bred coral survived, said Chris Kelble, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s ocean chemistry and ecosystems lab on Virginia Key, who also researches how humans alter coastal marine life.

“We have to figure out why those 22% survived. Were they more genetically resilient or more resilient to the heat stress for some reason? Were they in locations that were maybe not as thermally stressed as other ones?” he said. “ So one of the big steps now is to look into the survivors of this event and see why they survived.”

The summer also highlighted the scale of restoration needed. After stony coral disease first appeared off Virginia Key in 2014 during the Port Miami dredge, scientists rushed to create an emergency response as the disease began wiping out boulder coral up and down the reef tract. The disease has now moved beyond Florida to the Caribbean, the Bahamas and South America, accompanied by expanding restoration work with more labs growing and planting nursery-bred coral on reefs.

“Now, a lot of the conversations are about the scale with which we need to do restoration to give corals and coral reef ecosystems the chance to survive,” Kelble said.

That includes coming up with a plan to respond to heat waves, expected to grow more intense and frequent. Over the summer, aquarists teamed up with researchers during the rescue effort and got a quick lesson in other ways to help coral survive on land, Walcak said. They also learned “calm, clear water is a problem,” she said.

That’s leading to new response plans, including establishing deeper water nurseries to use as temporary housing during heat waves and small-scale shading deployed by the U.S. Geological Survey.

The summer also revealed regulatory challenges that need to be fixed, she said. An effort to feed the coral couldn’t get past rules, she said, while “snail derbies” to remove coral-eating snails and fireworms could help with future heat waves. NOAA has commissioned a study to identify 12 interventions, she said.

A timeline created by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection shows the increasing threats to South Florida's reefs.
A timeline created by the Florida Department of Environmental Protections shows the number of impacts to Florida’s reef, including sponge and seagrass die-offs and worsening water quality.

There’s also a growing focus on helping other beleaguered residents of the reef, including sea urchins, sponges and crabs. In the last decade, areas in the Keys have been hit by sponge and seagrass die-offs as well as deteriorating water quality.

Going forward, Walczak said, restoration alone can’t be the solution, especially with two-thirds of the lower reef experiencing bleaching.

“There’s still a lot out there to save,” she said. But “generally speaking, we need to reframe the conversation. We cannot restore our way out of this.”

Jenny Staletovich

Jenny Staletovich is WLRN's Environmental Reporter. Her work appears under a partnership between WLRN and the Key Biscayne Independent.

- Sponsored -

Jenny Staletovich is WLRN's Environmental Reporter. Her work appears under a partnership between WLRN and the Key Biscayne Independent.