Stimulus money has gone toward many things. From Broward County to the Florida Keys, and in the U.S. Virgin Islands, $3.3 million of it was used to create “singles bars” — for corals.
As part of the world’s largest reef restoration project, about 30,000 threatened staghorn and elkhorn coral colonies were grown in several underwater nurseries. Now, about 10,000 of the fast-growing corals, ranging in size from a couple of inches to colonies as big as a soccer ball, are being strategically transplanted to reefs in eight geographical areas. The hope is they will not only continue to grow, but spawn to make tens of thousands more coral colonies along the 300-mile reef tract.
“We’re just giving them a jump start,” said The Nature Conservancy’s James Byrne, the marine biologist who is overseeing the massive, three-year project funded by the American Recovery and Restoration Act of 2009.
“Now, if they can successfully reproduce, it will blow away anything we can do,” he said.
Ken Nedimyer of Key Largo, whose pioneering work in coral nurseries has been the blueprint for the project, already has witnessed his transplanted corals doing the wild thing at Molasses Reef, a popular dive site.
The federal stimulus funding, which created or supported 56 jobs for the project, has made it possible to turn his efforts and other successful pilot programs into a full-blown restoration.
“Before, most coral restoration efforts focused on places with large [vessel] groundings,” said Sean Morton, superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. “This is the first attempt to do it reef-wide and turn around a long-term trend of coral reef decline.”
During the past 30 years, scientists say, the population of staghorn and elkhorn coral has declined by about 90 percent throughout the Caribbean. There have been many contributing factors, including a die-off of algae-eating spiny sea urchins, disease caused by bleaching from rising water temperatures, ocean acidification, water pollution and hurricanes.
“If you went snorkeling or diving anywhere in the Caribbean in the early ’80s, you’d see corals everywhere,” Byrne said. “Staghorn used to be the dominant one on the reef, providing almost all the habitat for small juvenile fish to go into. And elkhorn dominated the top of the reef, building big reef crests that waves break on.”
In 2006, they were the first corals to be put on the threatened list under the Endangered Species Act. “Staghorn is a thinner branching colony that looks like the thin antlers of a young stag,” said Erich Bartels, coral science manager at Mote Marine Laboratory. “Elkhorn looks like big moose antlers that go out in a big fan shape.”
Both are important to Florida’s ecosystem and economy.
“This is not just about restoring nature for nature’s sake,” said Rob Brumbaugh, The Nature Conservancy’s director of global marine restoration.
“This is restoring nature for people’s sake. These habitats are nature’s infrastructure … We’re making fish. When you make fish, you make jobs. It’s a good investment.”
The $3.3 million was just a small part of the $167 million in stimulus funding given to coastline restoration projects, and not even a blip in the entire $831 billion package.