Restoring Coral Reefs After 2017 Hurricane Season

The damage after Hurricane Irma last year was easy to see, with flooded homes, broken windows, torn up roofs, uprooted trees and broken branches scattered throughout South Florida.

But not all of the destruction is out in the open; off our shores, it’s an invisible crisis.

“If people saw what it looked like in the houses right in its path, that’s the way it looked underwater, as well.”

Florida’s coral reefs are a state treasure. They are responsible for billions of dollars of commerce each year and thousands of jobs. They are also the rainforests of the sea, as they are home to a quarter of all marine life. And they took a direct hit last hurricane season.

“Before the hurricane came through, we built up a nursery over about seven years. It filled almost an acre of seafloor. And then unfortunately, after the hurricane, we had about less than five percent of that left,” said Erich Bartels, a scientist for the Mote Marine Laboratory on Summerland Key. He’s been helping grow branching coral for almost two decades.

“In a category four hurricane, we actually had these entire structures with 1,000 pound monofilament anchor driven three feet down in the sand rip out entirely and float up as far as Cape Canaveral,” said Bartels.

“The reefs here have seen massive mortality over the last 40 years. We’re looking at the loss of around 95 to 97 percent of the once dominant coral species,” said Alice Grainger. “It’s an invisible crisis to so many people.”

Grainger helps lead the Coral Restoration Foundation in Key Largo. It’s an organization leading one of the world’s largest coral relief efforts.

“The project has been going on for about ten years now and in those ten years, we’ve now planted 70,000 endangered corals back onto these reefs,” said Grainger.

The CRF has patented an innovative way to regrow branching coral at an advanced pace. Pieces of healthy coral are fragmented and grown as a new colony; a nursery of floating PVC trees.

“The water driving past the coral allows them to feed. They have their polyps out and they really like it. A furry coral is a happy coral. They get all the sunlight they need and they grow much faster than if they were planted down 30 feet,” said Dan Burdeno.

Burdeno is one of the proud curators of their coral nursery.

“Our Tavernier nursery is about an acre and a half. We have over 400 trees at this point. We are restoring these reefs and they are staying restored. In fact, they are improving year to year,” said Burdeno. “We want to work ourselves out of a job.”

The trees are also used at the Mote Nursey.

“The fact that they aren’t trying to anchor themselves to something allows them to grow four times faster, so we can mass produce these on a scale four times quicker,” said Dr. David Vaughan, the senior scientist at Mote. He’s growing a different type of coral.

Vaughan says Irma only set their research back by a few weeks.

“Within about six weeks, we already had some of our first tanks back up and running. We had 20,000 corals before Irma. We’re now back up to twice that amount,” said Vaughan.

Vaughan and his team take the corals and cut them into tiny pieces and then regrow them.

“Most people don’t realize they should be thanking the coral reef and our oceans every day. We couldn’t even live along the coast in South Florida if we didn’t have a barrier reef that is blocking the waves from storms and hurricanes,” said Vaughan. “If we like breathing, if we like fisheries, if we like to live near the coast, we should be paying attention because as the coral reefs go, so does mankind.”

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