Stimulus Funds Help To Revive Florida's Coral Reefs

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Researchers in Florida are growing new coral and transplanting it onto damaged reefs. They're using techniques developed, not by a marine scientist, but by the owner of a tropical fish company. With $3 million in stimulus money from the federal government, the project is being expanded.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Another environmental program is in the works in Florida. The federal government's stimulus money is being used to grow coral and repair damaged reefs. Government agencies and academic institutions are working together and it is the first time that coral reefs have been restored on this scale.

NPR's Greg Allen tells us the story that began with a man who makes his living catching tropical fish.

GREG ALLEN: Ken Nedimyer is tall and thin and has the look of a farmer. In fact, he is - sort of. Nedimyer works in the water, off the coast of the Florida Keys, and the crops he lovingly tends are actually tiny animals: coral.

Nedimyer makes his living selling tropical fish in what's called live rock. That's rock infused with algae, bacteria and other microscopic organisms that's used in big salt water aquariums. Several years ago, his daughter needed a 4H project. Nedimyer says he had some staghorn coral in his underwater nursery and an idea: why don't we cut it, culture it, and sell it for use in aquariums.

Mr. KEN NEDIMYER (Coral Restoration Foundation): We went out there and came up with a plan and went out there and did the first cutting and put them on the rocks. I learned a lot of lessons, and it was successful. We had 100 percent survival for the first year and we thought this is great.

ALLEN: Around that same time, though, Nedimyer says, he became aware of how poorly staghorn and other coral species were doing in the waters off the Florida coast. They're under stress because of pollution and warming oceans. Numbers have declined dramatically.

In Florida, coral reefs are a prized natural resource, crucial to divers, fisherman, and everyone here who depends on the tourist economy. Instead of selling his coral offspring, Nedimyer approached officials at the Florida Marine Sanctuary with the idea of transplanting young coral to damaged reefs.

They agreed and he began perfecting his coral raising technique. He says he takes small coral fragments about as long as your pinky and using special underwater epoxy glues them to pieces of stone.

Mr. NEDIMYER: And that little three centimeter coral will turn into a branching coral that has 50 or 60 centimeters of growth on it after one year. So that one-year-old coral is then ready to be transplanted out.

ALLEN: Working with the Nature Conservancy and other groups, Nedimyer has transplanted his staghorn coral to reefs throughout the Florida Keys.

(Soundbite of boat engine)

ALLEN: Now with $3 million in stimulus money from the federal government, a consortium of research groups is expanding the project. On a sunny September Keys morning, researchers from the Nature Conservancy take their boat out to one of the new coral nurseries.

(Soundbite of water splashing)

Ms. MEGAN JOHNSON (Nature Conservancy): There's jelly fish right below me.

ALLEN: Megan Johnson of the Nature Conservancy, wearing snorkel and fins, jumps into the water to check on one of the nurseries. It was started a little more than a year ago. We're about four miles off Big Pine Key in water that's nearly 30 feet deep. After diving for a closer look, Johnson returns to the boat.

Ms. JOHNSON: There's about 200 coral fragments down there and they were recently fragged about two months ago, so they're fairly small, about three centimeters, some of them, but then some of them are getting a lot bigger than that. It's looking good.

ALLEN: With the federal stimulus money, Nedimyer, the Nature Conservancy, and the other research groups are expanding these coral nurseries and adding four others, including two in the Virgin Islands. They hope to put 60 people to work raising and transplanting at least 12,000 corals over the next three years.

Chris Bird with the Nature Conservancy says the project aims to do more than just some sort term repair work.

Mr. CHRIS BIRD (Nature Conservancy): We'll never be able to grow enough coral to plant coral on every reef in Florida. It's too large of an area. It's too impractical. So the idea here is to create just enough coral that they can begin to breed on their own, to jumpstart the recovery of the species.

ALLEN: On that score there recently was some positive news. Last month, a team of researchers visited one of the reefs where Ken Nedimyer transplanted corals. They were there at just the right time, one of the two or three nights each year when corals release their eggs and sperm into the water to reproduce. It was the first time researchers documented corals using sexual reproduction after being transplanted to a new area.

Nedimyer says by using selective breeding techniques, it may be possible not just to rebuild the coral population but also to develop heartier varieties.

Mr. NEDIMYER: They can handle, you know, elevated sea surface temperatures and bleaching and disease. And it's not just a holding pattern. It's developing that new strain. And you have to ask, do we want to have coral reefs? I do.

ALLEN: Florida is home to the world's third largest coral reef, one that stretches more than 200 miles.

Nedimyer hopes breeding of heartier coral types may preserve it for future generations.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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