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.
The funding ends in December. The entities involved are trying to find more funding because while the project is a good start, there’s much more to do.
Last month, several of the government and private, nonprofit participants in the collaborative project traveled by boat to the nursery run by Mote Marine Laboratory off Big Pine Key, about 25 miles from Key West.
About 50 staghorn corals were collected at the nursery and taken to their new home at American Shoal, a reef in about 25 feet of water.
Snapper and angel fish swam by as trained divers used a chart to meticulously plant coral fragments about two inches long. Each was mounted to a nail with wire ties and glued to the bottom with a special epoxy. A disc with a number was placed nearby to identify the genotype.
It’s important to have diverse genotypes for neighbors. “You might see a big colony of staghorn, but it could be just one type that can’t sexually reproduce,” Byrne said. “They are basically clones of each other. That’s the biggest theory of why corals are struggling to come back from being devastated.”
But while staghorn grows fast, it can’t breed like rabbits.
“Spawning is only a once-a-year event,” Bartels said. “There’s a cloud release from corals in the middle of the night a couple days after a full moon in August or September. If there are not enough partners nearby to cross-fertilize, their once-a-year effort is for nothing.”
The corals are transplanted when they are “teenagers” and see about an 85 percent or higher survival rate. But that’s with tender care for the first year. Snails and other predators need to be picked off. Algae has to be brushed away, just like when they are growing on discs in the nurseries.
It’s labor-intensive, which is why the success of the long-term restoration rests with Mother Nature doing her thing.
Much has been learned about growing corals since Nedimyer — who started the nonprofit Coral Restoration Foundation — first tried the feat in 2000 as a 4-H project for his daughter, Kelly.
Nedimyer said his nursery is the biggest in the world, at more than an acre. “We’ve got more than 20,000 ready to go, and if we cut them up as small as they transplanted them today, we’d have about 150,000.”
He said that two years ago he could fill only a five-gallon barrel with his grown coral. “Now we can fill a couple of dump trucks.”