So far, community response to the Restoration Blueprint proposed by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary has been divided. At the recent community forum I attended, the loudest voices were those of fisherman and backcountry guides who are concerned that the proposed changes will negatively impact their livelihoods.
We need to listen to the Keys’ fishermen – they are world-renowned experts in their field and their opinions should carry as much weight as anyone’s.
But we also need to hear from experts in marine conservation and restoration. Because if there’s one thing I think everyone can agree upon, it’s that the Keys are not what they used to be. Not by a long shot. And the consensus among scientists and conservation practitioners is that if we don’t act now to restore and protect what remains of our marine ecosystems, everyone’s livelihoods in the Keys are in jeopardy.
Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF), one of this community’s most active leaders in coral reef science, conservation, and restoration, supports the sanctuary’s preferred options outlined in the Restoration Blueprint.
At CRF, we see the difference that Sanctuary Preservation Areas (SPAs) can make for our work – corals planted in SPAs tend to grow better, because they are afforded protection from anchors and fishing. We also see a relationship between the traffic on a reef, and the health of the corals on that reef. On Molasses Reef, perhaps the most popular diving reef in Key Largo, the health of corals planted by CRF has been historically poor. At Carysfort Reef, which receives comparatively less traffic, corals are growing well, even after the destruction of Hurricane Irma. At North Dry Rocks Reef, with only three mooring balls, corals planted by CRF are now dominating the tops of reef spurs.
A common claim is that none of this matters if we don’t first address the water quality issues of the Keys.
But CRF grows more healthy coral in its nurseries than can be planted in a given year. These nurseries have the same water as reefs, so what gives? The nurseries are protected areas, and there are so many corals that a “safety in numbers” effect essentially snowballs their health and growth.
This translates to the reefs, too. On nearly 30 Keys reefs, there are corals that would not be there without CRF’s work. In most cases these corals are now the only representatives of their species on those reefs. And on well-managed reef sites, these planted corals are now maturing and spawning naturally.
This serves to illustrate an important theme for corals. These little animals face a myriad of issues in the Keys, but they can be incredibly resilient, if they are just given a chance – if just a few of the issues facing them can be alleviated or eliminated. Water quality is at least a state-level issue (if not a federal-level issue) and, while it does need addressing, it will not be fixed tomorrow or next month or even next year.
But in the meantime, what we can do is give our corals and the reef system they build a fighting chance by enacting the sanctuary’s preferred options and removing the most localized and direct impacts affecting reef health. We need to be investing in education, restoration and enforcement so that when we do finally turn the tide on poor water quality in the Keys, there will still be something worth saving, worth using, and worth our efforts.
Special projects coordinator, Coral Restoration Foundation
Alex Neufeld is a marine biologist, scuba and free diver, and avid underwater photographer. He is the special projects coordinator for Coral Restoration FoundationTM, where his work involves transplanting endangered coral species onto reefs throughout the Florida Keys.
The Restoration Blueprint is available at floridakeys.noaa.gov/blueprint. NOAA is taking public comment on the proposals through Jan. 31, 2020. Comments may be submitted online at www.regulations.gov (docket number NOAA-NOS-2019-0094).
To review the Weekly’s coverage of the Restoration Blueprint and community opinions about it, visit keysweekly.com/42/category/sanctuary-blueprint/.