We have the resources to save Florida’s dying coral reefs. Now, we just need the will.

Disease, evident on the right, is decimating coral in the Florida Keys.
Disease, evident on the right, is decimating coral in the Florida Keys. Getty Images

Florida’s coral reef system is the third-largest living reef on the planet and the only barrier reef system in the continental United States. It supports more than 70,000 local jobs, draws $6.3 billion into Florida’s economy and buffers our coasts from wave energy and storm surge in our hurricane prone region. The fact that our reefs, despite their severely diminished condition, are capable of providing Floridians so many benefits is a testament to their importance and an indication of the enormous value restored reefs could deliver.

While much of the attention on Florida environmental issues — including our own — has rightly been focused on harmful algal blooms, an ecological catastrophe has also been unfolding on our reefs. During the last four decades, Florida’s indigenous corals have declined in some areas by more than 90 percent, with some species losing more than 97 percent of their populations.

Today, Florida’s coral reefs are experiencing a devastating, multiyear outbreak of a new, unidentified coral disease. Evidence suggests the disease may be transmitted by touch and carried by water currents, making it difficult to contain. While some have shown resistance, the vast majority of corals coming into contact with the disease, including some that may have taken hundreds of years to grow, die in as little as a month.

Corals growing in good water quality conditions typically are more resistant to disease. And it was recognized decades ago that to save the Florida reef tract, drastic action to improve water quality was required. Critical efforts currently are under way to restore the Everglades to enhance freshwater flows and salinity levels in Florida and Biscayne Bays, complete the Florida Keys Water Quality Improvement Program, and reduce wastewater discharges through ocean outfalls. These infrastructure projects will all augment nearshore water quality and habitat for reef species.

Despite continued progress on water quality, however, it is likely that our devastated coral populations will be unable to execute a quick, natural recovery of the reef. That means conservation strategies alone cannot solve this dilemma. A bold restoration program to actively assist the recovery of this ecosystem is essential, and we are closer than ever to amassing the scientific knowledge, technological tools and public investment and support needed to make reef restoration a reality.

Mote Marine Laboratory, a Florida-based, independent, nonprofit, global marine research institution, has developed innovative coral reef restoration technologies focused on growing threatened and reef-building coral species for replanting on degraded sections of reefs. Mote scientists now have the ability to “re-skin” a dead 100-year old coral skeleton in just two years with living tissue from native coral strains resilient to the impacts of disease, warming waters and ocean acidification. Working with multiple partners, Mote has already planted more than 43,000 corals onto Florida’s reefs, and during the last two years, the state of Florida awarded a total of $1 million for Mote to plant an additional 50,000 corals.

With philanthropic support, Mote has built a new state-of-the-art marine science laboratory in Summerland Key to serve as a base of operations for its proposed Florida Keys Coral Disease Response & Restoration Initiative to dramatically scale up restoration efforts along the Florida reef tract. The Appropriations Committee of the U.S. Senate has even approved an unprecedented $5 million in FY19 (proposed and secured by Rubio) to advance this vital effort.

In spite of the urgency with which restoration solutions need to be implemented, some in the science community may prefer to fully “study the problem” before intervening, while bureaucrats in regulatory agencies are likely to demand unequivocal (and unrealistic) guarantees of outcomes before initiating any action. But, the conventional approach will only make the challenges before us more daunting. We cannot wait for the current disease epidemic to run its course before employing our best option for restoring Florida’s reefs.

We have the knowledge, tools and resources necessary to begin to restore Florida’s reefs. Mote’s scientifically rigorous and environmentally strategic Florida Keys Coral Disease Response & Restoration Initiative, implemented in concert with federal, state, and nonprofit partners, will provide a framework to significantly address an ongoing ecological emergency and stem a potential economic disaster for our state. All that’s needed now is the will, and an opportunity, to try.

Marco Rubio has represented Florida in the U.S. Senate since he was elected in 2010. Dr. Michael P. Crosby is president & CEO of Mote Marine Laboratory.