South Florida's coral reefs are in trouble. From climate change to pollution to a mysterious disease, 50% of the hard corals from Broward County down to Key West have died.
The problem is severe for the marine environment and also for the local economy. It's estimated that coral reefs are responsible for $10 billion in annual income and for about 71,000 jobs.
So when the Miami Super Bowl Host Committee was looking for an environmental project for next season's game, which is being played here at Hard Rock Stadium, they looked east, to the coral reefs off the coast.
"So the game will come, it'll be awesome, but what's important to us is the legacy we're leaving our community, and we know the coral reef that we're starting here will be a legacy that will last for generations to come," said Mike Zimmer, president of the Host Committee.
The Host Committee partnered with the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, the Frost Museum of Science, and Verizon to create an enhanced coral reef in a mostly barren area adjacent to Rainbow Reef, which is off Key Biscayne. UM researchers have a coral nursery in the waters nearby in which they grow staghorn coral, a species which is resistant to the disease ravaging other hard corals.
"This is probably the most unique environmental project we've ever done around a super bowl," said Susan Groh, who runs the NFL Green program.
To honor the NFL's 100th season, they embarked on a mission today to plant 100 coral nubbins.
"So it's gonna create this nice restoration plot that's going to act like a hope spot, we're gonna build this staghorn thicket to have this healthy, productive site so it can hopefully seed the surrounding coral reefs," explained Dalton Hesley, a UM coral researcher.
It's not a complicated process. Divers snip off staghorn pieces from the nursery, and use materials you'd find at a hardware store to attach them to the bottom.
"A couple of nails and a few zip ties later, you have a reef on your hands, and that's what we're gonna do," said Nathan Quinn, a Killian High School graduate who was one of the volunteers doing the underwater work.
It's an "only in South Florida" project, made even more unique when you consider that most of the physical work is being done by combat veterans.
Twelve retired Navy Seal and special ops members dove right in when they saw this opportunity.
"So when you can hop into the water and initiate real change to the environment and in my own back yard, it's an incredible feeling, this is exactly what I want to do with the rest of my life," said Quinn, who is an Army veteran.
The vets are members of Force Blue, a non-profit organization created to help combat vets fight PTSD by giving them a sense of purpose.
"You can't just say, hey, your service is over, here's a cubicle, get on with your life, these guys need mission," said Jim Ritterhoff, the co-founder of Force Blue. "They're service men and women, they need a sense of mission and that's what Force Blue provides."
The organization trains the vets to do marine conservation work.
"I call this flipping the script, we're gonna change the narrative, not just about what's possible in the realm of conservation and restoring these vital, vital coral reefs, but what our veterans can still mean not just to our country but to the world in continued service," Ritterhoff said.
The coral experts say by the time the game is played next February, the corals planted today will be the size of basketballs. So they grow rapidly, and they're planted, by the way, in the shape of a football field.