KEY LARGO (CBSMiami/AP) – Uncle Sam is pitching in to help save the coral reefs off South Florida and the Keys.
Since 2009. the American Recovery and Restoration Act of 2009 has provided more than $3 million to grow about 30,000 threatened staghorn and elkhorn coral colonies in underwater nurseries. About 10,000 of the fast-growing corals are being transplanted in eight areas along a 300-mile reef tract from Broward County to the Florida Keys, and in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The goal of the transplants is to spawn tens of thousands more coral colonies.
"We're just giving them a jump start," said The Nature Conservancy's James Byrne, the marine biologist overseeing the three-year project.
"Now, if they can successfully reproduce, it will blow away anything we can do," said Byrne.
The money was part of $167 million given to coastline restoration projects; the entire stimulus package totaled $831 billion. The funding, which created or supported 56 jobs, ends in December.
"Before, most coral restoration efforts focused on places with large (vessel) groundings," said Sean Morton, superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. "This is the first attempt to do it reef-wide and turn around a long-term trend of coral reef decline."
Scientists say staghorn and elkhorn coral populations have declined by about 90 percent throughout the Caribbean over the last 30 years. Many factors have contributed to the decline, including a die-off of algae-eating spiny sea urchins, disease caused by bleaching from rising water temperatures, ocean acidification, water pollution and hurricanes.
"If you went snorkeling or diving anywhere in the Caribbean in the early '80s, you'd see corals everywhere," Byrne said. "Staghorn used to be the dominant one on the reef, providing almost all the habitat for small juvenile fish to go into. And elkhorn dominated the top of the reef, building big reef crests that waves break on."
In 2006, elkhorn and staghorn were the first corals to be put on the threatened list under the Endangered Species Act.
"Staghorn is a thinner branching colony that looks like the thin antlers of a young stag," said Erich Bartels, coral science manager at Mote Marine Laboratory. "Elkhorn looks like big moose antlers that go out in a big fan shape."
Both corals are important to Florida's ecosystem and economy, scientists say.
"This is restoring nature for people's sake. These habitats are nature's infrastructure," said Rob Brumbaugh, The Nature Conservancy's director of global marine restoration. "We're making fish. When you make fish, you make jobs. It's a good investment."
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