Environment

Florida’s coral reefs are in trouble. Here’s a new $160 million plan to save them

The odds are stacked against Florida’s coral reefs.

A mysterious disease is devastating them. So is climate change, which warms and acidifies ocean waters. Development and pollution don’t help much, either.

Landmark federal legislation to help corals expired in 2000, and a new bill introduced Friday by Florida’s Republican senators would revive it.

The Restoring Resilient Reefs Act of 2019 was sponsored in the U.S. Senate by Marco Rubio and Rick Scott as well as Hawaii’s Democratic Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono and in the House by Reps. Darren Soto, D-Florida, and Jenniffer González-Colón, R-Puerto Rico. They introduced it the day before Congress’ August recess, so no one has a chance to consider the bill until Congress resumes in September.

The act would reauthorize the now-lapsed Coral Reef Conservation Act and modernize it, providing $160 million of federal funding for the next five years and reinstating the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force. The bill would funnel more money than before into management of reefs through matching state grants, with a focus on restoring reefs where natural disasters and human activities have hurt them.

“Florida’s Reef Tract is an integral component of the economic and ecological character of Florida, and the Restoring Resilient Reefs Act of 2019 will ensure future generations will be able to enjoy this natural wonder,” Rubio said in a statement Friday announcing the bill.

The act would also amp up monitoring procedures for restoration efforts, particularly when replanting farmed corals to ensure that the stony coral tissue loss disease isn’t contaminating newly planted reefs. That disease, and hurricanes, are fast-acting sources of disaster for reefs, and the bill seeks to address a current gap in coral reef management funding by speeding up emergency funds in response.

The bill does not explicitly mention climate change, but it does mention that reefs face a challenge of “human-accelerated changes, including increasing ocean temperatures, ocean acidification, coral bleaching, coral diseases, and invasive species.”

“Florida depends on our coral reefs. Not only are they essential to the health of our marine ecosystem, they are vital to coastal resiliency, stand as the first line of defense against storm surge in Southeast Florida and play a key role in our tourism economy,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a statement announcing the bill.

Alex Harris covers climate change for the Miami Herald, including how South Florida communities are adapting to the warming world. She attended the University of Florida.
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