Several coral reefs in the Florida Keys could be getting a new lease on life.

In collaboration with state and local partners, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration this week launched a new strategy to restore and preserve seven coral reef sites in the Florida Keys, part of a decades-long effort to revitalize the region’s highly diverse and economically valuable marine ecosystem.

The project, Mission: Iconic Reefs, calls for restoring nearly 3 million square feet (278,709 square meters) of the Florida Reef Tract, about the size of 52 American football fields, one of the largest strategies ever proposed in the field of coral restoration. Over the next year and beyond, NOAA will support this effort and work with outside partners to secure additional public and private funds.

According to acting NOAA Administrator Neil Jacobs:

“NOAA is fundamentally changing its approach to coral reef restoration by proactively intervening to restore reef health and improve ecological function. Bold and decisive action has the very real potential to save one of the largest and most economically important reef ecosystems in the world before it’s too late.”

Over the past 15 years, pioneering restoration efforts involving growing and transplanting corals have proven successful in the Florida Keys, setting the stage for this new, large-scale restoration effort at seven reefs within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary: Carysfort Reef, Horseshoe Reef, Cheeca Rocks, Sombrero Reef, Newfound Harbor, Looe Key Reef, and Eastern Dry Rocks.

These sites represent a diversity of habitats, support a variety of human uses, span the full geographic range of the Florida Keys, and show a high probability of success, according to NOAA.

The restoration effort will incorporate a phased implementation approach over the next 20 years on the seven reefs. The first phase, designed to increase coral cover from two to 15 percent over 10 years, will focus on restoring elkhorn and staghorn corals, fast-growing species that have not been affected by the current outbreak of stony coral tissue loss disease, as well as begin to incorporate resilient corals of other slower growing species. At these sites, scientists will remove nuisance and invasive species like algae and snails, and reintroduce sea urchins and crabs to help keep the reefs clean and healthy.

The second phase, which is designed to return the reef to its historical coral cover of 25 percent, will focus on adding additional slower-growing, foundational coral species propagated from colonies that have survived or been rescued from bleaching and disease events. The goal is to restore diversity and ecological function to the reefs by returning coral cover at target reef sites to a self-sustaining level.

Collaboration among federal and state agencies, leading coral reef experts, local restoration practitioners, and the Florida Keys community will be key to the success of this ambitious effort. Partners include the State of Florida, Coral Restoration Foundation, Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, the Florida Aquarium, the Nature Conservancy, Reef Renewal and the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation.

For more info, go to the NOAA website.

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