Meet the Florida Man Replanting Thousands of Corals to Fight a Historic Die-Off

For so long, the rallying cry of conservationists has been: “Plant a tree, save the planet.” But in Florida, it may be more appropriate to plant a coral — to save the ocean.

So much of our state’s magic and beauty is hidden underneath the ocean’s surface. Our hundreds of square miles of coral reefs are not just eye catching, they’re an essential habitat and breeding ground for fish and other wildlife. Some 25 percent of marine species are supported by corals. The reefs bring in tourism dollars and act as barriers, protecting the coastland from erosion. 

But Florida’s corals are in serious danger. In recent decades, spawned by high sea temperatures and increased threats from pollution, dredging and overfishing, corals have become more susceptible to bleaching and disease. When water is too warm, corals expel algae, causing them to turn completely white. Bleaching isn’t always fatal, but it puts the corals at high risk. According to the Florida Reef Resilience Program (FRRP), 2015 has seen severe bleaching in the Middle and Upper Keys. 

Over decades of diving in the Keys, Ken Nedimyer saw his beloved corals disappear and die as the seas filled with boats and sewage. He couldn't sit by and watch it happen. So he and his daughter tried an experiment for a 4H project: Fragment healthy, functioning coral to spawn the growth of new colonies. The technique worked. That led to the founding of the nonprofit Coral Restoration Foundation in Key Largo to apply the technique throughout the Keys.

As explained in a recent Grist story, Nedimyer works to reproduce species of coral in underwater nurseries and then replant them in the dying reefs, to bring them back to life.

In 2003, Nedimyer got federal permission to plant six corals in Molasses Reef in the Keys. In 2007, CRF planted 18. By the end of 2015, he and staff and volunteers are on track to plant 23,000. The organization works in tandem with The Nature Conservancy and other conservation organizations to expand the technique. 

According to CRF head of marketing Mari Backus, the corals start out the size of a finger. They're hung from coral "trees," which can hold hundreds of fragments. Within eight months to a year, they’ve grown 30 or 40 centimeters to the size of a dinner plate. At that point, they’re taken out of the nursery and “outplanted” in a reef. Once there, the corals continue to grow. 

CRF now manages five coral nurseries along the Keys as well as additional nurseries in the Caribbean.

Backus says the organization’s goal is simple. They can't save the entire reef, but they can make it more resilient. “We’re really just trying to tip the scale so they can thrive on their own again,” she says.

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Jessica Weiss