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The coral reefs around the world are dying at an alarming rate. The cause of their demise includes human-induced pollution, sedimentation and rising water temperatures from global warming, just to name a few. Reefs are often referred to as “the rainforests of the sea.” They attract more marine life than anywhere else in the ocean because of the natural shelter and food they provide. Unfortunately, these underwater Edens are disappearing worldwide, and some scientists fear they could all be gone by 2050.
Coral reefs in the beautiful Florida Keys are not immune to these threats and have been dying at a rapid rate. The keystone Staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis), for example, has seen a 98% decline over the past 30 years, and Elkhorn coral (Cropora palmate) numbers have declined by 90 % over the same period. This has left many of the other remaining corals scattered and facing local extinction.
Thankfully, the Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF), a Key Largo-based nonprofit group founded by aquarium fish collector-turned-conservationist Ken Nedimyer, is helping to restore the local reefs. Ken and his team have applied techniques for propagating corals in the aquarium hobby to grow and transplant thousands of them in and aournd the Keys.
Recently, I was honored with an opportunity to accompany Ken to harvest corals from the nursery and transplant them in a nearby reef.
Our first dive of the day took place at the CRF’s innovative Coral Tree Nursery. The Coral Tree Nursery is exactly what the name implies. About 20 feet below the surface on a sandy bottom, there are dozens of ?coral trees?, each growing dozens of coral fragments. The CRF developed a framework of PVC pipes that resembles the shape of a tree. Corals grown on these trees are fragmented underwater using the same techniques used by aquarium hobbyists when fragmenting their corals at home. Then, the cut corals are attached to the coral tree arm using wire or monofilament line. The Coral Tree Nursery is tethered to the sea floor and buoyed with a subsurface flotation device that can be moved up and down as needed. The Tree Nursery floats in the water column and is able to move with storm-generated wave surges. This dissipates wave energy, preventing damage to the tree structure or corals.
During the dive, we cut and collected dozens of Staghorn coral fragments. We kept the larger pieces of coral and tied them into a bundle, which would later be taken back to the boat for our second dive. The smaller coral’s fragments were meticulously tagged with their genetic information and site data for tracking. Then, each small frag was attached to a coral tree to grow. After approximately eight months, these small coral frags will be large enough to be outplanted to a reef site.
Before we could attach the frags, we did some coral tree maintenance. This meant scrubbing the PVC branches to remove nuisance algae and debris before attaching the newly-cut corals to the structure.
We took our newly-collected bundles of coral fragments from the nursery and loaded them carefully on the boat. We then drove a few miles away to Pickles Reef, a popular recreational dive and fishing spot where the CRF has been planting corals for the past few years.
We dove back in the water with the corals in hand for the most difficult task of the day. Ken directed me to a nearly barren patch of reef where he wanted the coral frags to be placed. We then began the delicate task of transplanting the corals. Using hammers, we cleared away algae and debris from the base reef rock. Then, we used underwater epoxy (very similar to the Fluval Epoxy used in saltwater aquariums) to attach the corals to the bare reef rock. The corals were planted close to one another in a circular shape, which over time will grow into a beautiful thicket of Staghorn coral. With each newly planted coral merely inches away, I have to admit I got a bit nervous every time I swung my hammer.
After the dive, we swam around the reef to inspect previously planted sites. The CRF performs monitoring and maintenance on all restoration sites for at least two years after the initial outplanting. Coral colonies are checked for disease, predation, tissue paling and broken branches. If broken fragments are found nearby, the CRF staff and volunteers reattach broken pieces to the substrate using underwater epoxy. Each of these broken fragments will grow into new coral colonies. Without reattachment, the broken fragments would most likely be unable to attach to the reef substrate on their own and would not survive.
According to Ken, Pickles Reef was nearly devoid of Staghorn coral just a couple of years ago. On my dive, I could clearly see small patches of corals that the CRF planted just months before. Amazingly, these recently planted patches of coral have taken hold and are growing into healthy colonies. It’s amazing to see fish and invertebrates beginning to return to these recently planted areas so soon.
The CRF is staffed by just a handful of dedicated people and volunteers, so it relies on donations to help fund their mission. I was grateful to Ken and his team for letting me witness their important work firsthand, and am equally honored to be associated with Fluval – a company that recognizes and supports the restoration of such priceless underwater rainforests.
Coral Restoration Foundation – Coral Reef Transplant
To support the sustainability of the oceans that inspire the reef aquarium hobby, Fluval is proud to sponsor the efforts of the Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) – a non-profit conservation organization dedicated to creating offshore nurseries and restoration programs for threatened coral species.
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