Restoring Seven Iconic Reefs: A Mission to Recover the Coral Reefs of the Florida Keys

NOAA and partners have developed an unprecedented, decades-long approach to restore seven iconic coral reef sites in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Divers planting staghorn coral

Divers outplant staghorn coral at Carysfort Reef in the Florida Keys. (Photo: Alexander Neufeld/Coral Restoration Foundation)

Over the last 40 years, coral reefs in the Florida Keys have suffered dramatic declines. Nearly 90 percent of the live corals that once dominated the reefs have been lost. Emergency action is required to change the trajectory of the health of coral reefs in Florida, and to protect the economy that depends on them. NOAA and partners have developed a first-of-its-kind approach to restore corals at seven ecologically and culturally significant reef sites in the Florida Keys.

Recent News: In February 2020, the United Arab Emirates announced a $3.5 million gift to The United Way of Collier and the Keys in Florida to support the coral restoration efforts of Mission: Iconic Reefs. The donation is part of a larger $10 million pledge to the state of Florida for Hurricane Irma relief and recovery efforts. The United Way will oversee the grant as part of its continuing Hurricane Irma recovery programming and assistance.

Need for Action

There is no single cause for the decline of Florida Keys coral reefs. Locally, impacts to the reefs come from misplaced boat anchors, ship groundings, pollution, overfishing, storms, and disease. Globally, warming ocean temperatures can cause bleaching, compromising coral health. 

Losing coral reefs could result in cascading effects to the Florida Keys region’s economy and culture, which are firmly rooted in the local marine ecosystem. This unique habitat generates billions of dollars in recreation and tourism for the state of Florida. Healthy coral reefs provide habitat for recreationally and commercially important fish and a myriad of other animals, including spiny lobster and sea turtles.

In response to the decline in coral reef health, the Florida Keys region has become a world leader in coral reef restoration. Although local efforts have had success at small scales, restoration has not been able to keep up with the rate of decline.

    Our Restoration Approach

    Quick and decisive action is required to stop the decline of coral reefs in the Florida Keys, and to protect the economy that depends on them. In order to restore these coral reefs to benefit generations to come, restoration efforts must be scaled up with a focus at the ecosystem level. 

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    The seven iconic reef sites within Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

    Using the best available restoration science, we will restore diverse, reef-building corals at seven reef sites within Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary:

    These sites represent the iconic diversity and productivity of Florida Keys coral reefs. They span the geographic extent of the region, a variety of habitats, and a range of human uses. They also have a history of restoration success, or have characteristics that indicate restoration is likely to succeed.

    Our approach builds off of other regional management efforts to put Florida Keys reefs on the path to recovery. It is informed by years of research, successful trials, and expertise from more than two dozen coral scientists and restoration practitioners. For the first time, NOAA will proactively intervene with natural conditions by removing nuisance and invasive species and introducing disease-resistant and climate-resilient corals.

    Graphic depicting phases of Mission Iconic Reefs

    Mission: Iconic Reefs will use a phased approach, working toward a goal of 25 percent average coral cover by the end of Phase 2.

    Restoration is set to begin immediately, using a phased approach:

    • Site preparation: Remove nuisance and invasive species, like algae, that compete with corals for space and prevent coral larvae from settling and growing. 
    • Phase 1: Use rapidly-growing coral species to restore the reefs to an average of 15 percent coral cover across the seven sites. Coral cover is a measure of how much of the reef surface is covered by live coral rather than sponges, algae, or other organisms. In general, 25 percent coral cover is considered necessary to support a healthy ecosystem and protect reef structure.
      • Phase 1A: Restore elkhorn coral, a fast-growing species that has not been susceptible to stony coral tissue loss disease. Creating this habitat will increase populations of other species living on the reef and support future phases of planting. 
      • Phase 1B: Improve diversity of the reef by restoring star, brain, pillar, and staghorn corals. Reefs will also be supplemented with species that eat algae that can overgrow coral reefs, such as long-spined sea urchins and Caribbean king crab.  
    • Phase 2: Continue planting elkhorn, star, brain, pillar, and staghorn corals, in addition to the other small, slower-growing stony corals such as finger and blade coral. This will  add diversity to the reefs. By the end of this phase, coral cover will be restored to an average of 25 percent across the seven sites.
    • During all phases: We will conduct routine monitoring and nurturing of each site. This will include removing marine debris, coral predators, and species that might compete for space. We will also reattach any corals that may have been damaged or disconnected.

    A person wearing a blue shirt holds a tray of corals ready for planting

    Corals grown for outplanting in the Florida Keys. (Photo: The Florida Aquarium)

    Partners Working Together

    The effort to put Florida Keys coral reefs on track for recovery is an enormous undertaking, requiring long-term collaboration between many partners. A cross-NOAA team is engaging world-renowned scientists, local restoration partners, and other federal and state agencies. We are identifying ways to work together and save these important, iconic resources. 

    Together, we can make a difference in reversing decades of decline in these critical ecosystems. NOAA isn’t in this alone. Our expanding network of world-renowned scientists, federal and state agencies, local restoration partners, and community stakeholders will promote a collaborative effort, so that everyone can make a meaningful contribution to Mission: Iconic Reefs. See more information on partner roles.

    Across NOAA, offices involved in this effort include:

    Outside of NOAA, our partners include:

    Related Information

    Last updated by Office of Habitat Conservation on March 03, 2020