The Florida coast is the home of one of the largest barrier reefs on the planet. The tropical wonderland spans across nearly 150 miles along the southern part of Florida and the Florida Keys. Thousands of species of fish, sharks and rays, and sea turtles call the myriad of coral formations home. But in the last four decades, the coral cover of the coast’s tropical reef system has declined drastically.
In just the last decade, the nearly half of the reef’s coral cover has died. Not only does this affect the marine ecosystems that rely on the reef for survival, but the potential economic consequences could lead to devastating results for Florida communities. The reefs are a major draw for tourists. They also provide food, limestone for construction, and act as a first line of defense against storm surges from approaching hurricanes.
Stephanie Schopmeyer is a marine biologist with the University of Miami who has dedicated her career to saving the coral reefs. One way she does this is through partnering with the Rescue a Reef program. This program recruits certified divers with an interest in science to help replant parts of the reef where the coral has died.
“Citizen scientists are members of our local community that are interested in participating and contributing to any type of science program. And in our case, it’s coral restoration,” Stephanie shared with CBS News. These underwater gardeners are hoping their efforts will help to reverse the damage that’s been done to Florida’s barrier reef.
The process is a slow one. First, newly grown coral is harvested from coral “trees.” The coral transplants are hung from fences that allow them ample access to sunlight, nutrients, and food in an area where the temperature is ideal for their growth. Later, the coral is taken to barren areas of the reef and replanted by the citizen scientists in the hopes of stimulating more coral growth.
Out of the water, scientist are also trying to study the resilience of the hundreds of coral species that are native to Florida’s coast to better understand why the coral is dying and what can be done to save it. In addition, different strains of coral are being bred that will better be able to adapt to changing temperatures and climate fluctuations.
The Rescue a Reef program is just one of dozens of organizations involved in Florida’s underwater gardening movement. The Coral Restoration Foundation, the Coral Reef Alliance, and the Southeast Florida Coral Reef Initiative are just a few. These networks are planting tens of thousands of coral transplants every year. They know that there’s still a long way to go, but these dedicated volunteers are willing to keep giving their time so that Florida’s beautiful reefs can be enjoyed for generations to come.