Coral Restoration Foundation Leading the Way

Natalia Shoenberg tends to a white tree made of PVC with large pieces of Staghorn coral growing from it like Christmas ornaments.  She eyes the young coral and prunes off pieces, which fall one by one to the sand. Situated below her, I grab a loop of fishing line, wrap it around a coral fragment, pull it taught, crimp it with diagonal wire cutters, and place it in a pile. Having wrapped 40 coral fragments, we take them to a new tree, shining white and suspended in space, to hang them. This might seem mundane and ordinary if it weren’t for the fact that we are 30 feet below the ocean surface in 74-degree water breathing from air tanks.

I dive volunteered with the Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) during the first two weeks of February. If I was lucky – and good at breathing slowly – I could get 55-70 minutes underwater per tank, and we were going under 2-3 times per day.  Activities like cleaning trees of invasive sponges, algae and fire coral, which might seem monotonous on the surface, are exciting and rewarding when living in the moment helping young corals to grow and thrive. When below, I stayed on task to maximize my impact on limited time.

  Frederick preparing coral fragments for tree hanging. (c) Stephen Kroll

Frederick preparing coral fragments for tree hanging. (c) Stephen Kroll

  Natalia hanging a Staghorn coral fragment. (c) Stephen Kroll

Natalia hanging a Staghorn coral fragment. (c) Stephen Kroll

  Victoria Cassia scrubbing algae off of a Elkhorn coral tree

Victoria Cassia scrubbing algae off of a Elkhorn coral tree

"Working in our coral nursery is everything I love about diving and science combined into one,” said Natalia. “I get to participate in one of my favorite recreational activities and...accomplish tasks with the purpose of protecting an ecosystem that I've spent my whole life studying and caring about.”

In order to explain to people who don't dive what she does, she tells them, "I am basically the equivalent of an underwater farmer. I get to tend to a whole field of corals, monitor their health and eventually plant them on the reef. " But she is more than underwater farming, as she's raising Staghorn and Elkhorn coral, both listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species. I felt like a farmer too. When I raised my head from the moment-to-moment activity of cleaning a coral tree in the garden to let my eyes wander to the people, coral and fish around me, and pondered what I was doing down below the surface, I knew it was a holy act.

  Aerial view of the Tavernier Nursery from the surface.

Aerial view of the Tavernier Nursery from the surface.

The Coral Restoration Foundation has seven coral nurseries encompassing over 400 tree structures where they grow coral for future outplanting on damaged reefs in the Florida Keys. The main one, which is three miles offshore from Tavernier, Florida is 1.5 acres in size and a sowing ground for more than 150 genetic variations of Staghorn and Elkhorn coral. These two fast-growing species once served as the backbone of healthy coral reefs throughout the Caribbean, dominating reefs from Florida to Belize to Grenada. But since the 1970s, Staghorn and Elkhorn have suffered 97% mortality as a direct result of human activities, and are now facing extinction. In order to develop more resilient coral reefs, CRF is planting many different genetic varieties in locations where, in the past, there might have been only one or two. Much like crop diversification on a farm, expanding genetic diversity on a coral reef reduces the risk of mass mortality from extreme warming events and disease outbreaks.

  On the way to the Tavernier Nursery. L-R: Callie Stephenson, Tommy Paige and Natalia Shoenberg

On the way to the Tavernier Nursery. L-R: Callie Stephenson, Tommy Paige and Natalia Shoenberg

Why is the ocean warming?  Most people are unaware that the ocean absorbs over half of the carbon dioxide that humans emit into the atmosphere, causing it to warm and become more acidic. When ocean water gets too hot for too long - often during extreme El Nino events tied to climate change - many coral colonies become so sick that they expel the colored microalgae that they live in symbiosis with, causing them to turn white or bleach.  While not dead yet, they have reached a crisis state and recovery is slow and difficult. This is important, because while coral reefs comprise less than 1% of ocean habitat, 25% of fish species depend on them for food and/or shelter. In addition to the ecological benefits, healthy coral reefs protect coastal communities from storms and beach erosion, while providing $36 billion in global tourism value annually. Bleaching events – once rare and localized – are five times more common than they were 40 years ago.

While declines in coral reef health were less well known by the public until recently, the catastrophic bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef in 2016, where over 90% of coral reefs bleached in some places, has increased media attention. Documentaries like Chasing Coral and BBC's Blue Planet series are also providing visual proof of these trends to audiences all over the world.  The international marine conservation community has designated 2018 as the International Year of the Reef to further increase global awareness in the hope of prompting swift action to protect our coral reef ecosystems. Its yet to be seen whether this will translate into measurable action to stop the decline.

  Elkhorn coral tree right before cleaning

Elkhorn coral tree right before cleaning

What started as a side project for the Ken Nedimeyer, the founder of Coral Restoration Foundation, has transformed into a non-profit with a $2 million annual budget, thirteen staff, 12 interns and a wide field of volunteers. CRF recently received a $2.1 million, multi-year grant from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) to expand their coral growing and restoration operations to help restore what has been lost. CRF out-planted 20,000 pieces of coral onto reefs in the Florida Keys in 2016 and plans to out-plant another 50,000 pieces in the next three years. With the extensive damage caused by Hurricane Irma in September 2017, the local reefs need more help than ever.

CRF is also the worldwide leader in helping others to start their own coral restoration operations. Newton Eristhee, who works for CLEAR Caribbean, was trained by CRF and has since developed coral nurseries and restoration programs in Petite St. Vincent and St. Lucia.  CLEAR Caribbean is one of many organizations, including those in Bonaire, Grand Cayman and Jamaica, that learned their techniques from CRF and are now managing their own nurseries. Ten years from now I expect that coral nurseries will be an integral part of every island seeking to protect its coral reefs across the globe. Without Coral Restoration Foundation, this might never have happened.

Working on a science boat three miles offshore is harder and more fulfilling than any recreational dive.  Roxane Boonstra, CRF's Recreational Dive Manager, gave me solid goals to reach before I could volunteer.  I was required to do at least 30 dives, have 1st Aid, CPR and Emergency Oxygen Provider certifications, and provide all of my own equipment and food. In addition, after my arrival she gave me a three-hour orientation where I learned about coral ecology and received hands-on instruction in coral restoration techniques, such as coral tree cleaning and out-planting.

I volunteered alongside her and over a dozen different staff and interns. They are a hard-working, earnest, funny, and adventurous crew and know they are making a difference. That’s one of the advantages of coral restoration work: you can see the daily effect of your time and energy.  As someone who had just completed my 32nd dive before volunteering with them, it was exhilarating to work in a collaborative learning environment with experienced science divers who wear scuba gear like a second skin. When I asked Callie Stephenson, one of the new interns, why she was excited to be working for CRF, she gushed with enthusiasm.

 Roxane Boonstra, CRF's Recreational Dive Manager

Roxane Boonstra, CRF's Recreational Dive Manager

"They have a really focused mission," said Callie. "It seems like they have a bunch of wheels turning and everyone is very motivated to do something that actually makes a difference. And I feel like its something where you can see the tangible difference while working here and I really want to be a part of something like that."

After years of advocacy and policy work for the environment, it was refreshing for me to make an immediate impact in such a short time. At the same time, I grew concerned that not enough time and energy was being devoted worldwide to restoring degraded reefs. As I floated 30 feet below and scanned the coral garden, I felt like we were racing against time. Coral cover – the amount of surface coral that covers reefs - has declined 80% since the 1980s. It will take a long time for coral reefs to reclaim their historic prominence. CRF's growing operation may seem large, but considering the damage that has been done to our coral ecosystems, we need a hundred nurseries the size of Tavernier in the Caribbean alone.  On the plus side, there is clearly an intensive surge of focus and activity focused on conserving reefs and creating marine protected areas to create habitat and give fish places to thrive and populate. Hopefully all of this attention will lead to on-the ground changes in our relationship to the ocean. In the meantime, the Coral Restoration Foundation will keep rebuilding Florida’s reefs and helping others to do the same.

If you are interested to learn more about the Coral Restoration Foundation, please go to coralrestoration.org. For media inquiries, contact marketing@coralrestoration.org.