Saving Florida Keys coral in the reefs one by one

CBS News correspondent Elaine Quijano visits the coral reefs with marine biologist Ken Nedimyer to see the coral conservation efforts in the Florida Keys first hand.
CBs News

(CBS News) KEY LARGO, Fla. - A shocking report this week said that climate change will damage 70 percent of the world's coral by the year 2030.

It's a problem in Florida, which is home to the only barrier reef along the continental U.S.

Marine biologist Ken Nedimyer sounds like a proud parent when he talks about coral, the tiny organisms living on limestone that he's growing off the coast of Florida.

"Especially when they start getting big, and they're spawning and there's fish living inside there, I get real excited, and I can't wait to see it in five more years," he said.

Over the last decade, Nedimyer and a small team have developed new techniques to grow and replace coral damaged by environmental changes. To see how he does it, you have to dive 30 feet below the surface.

Nedimyer said the coral is doing a lot better than he thought they would when he began the project. He pointed out an area heavy-populated by coral that was planted in the last two years.

"There's a lot of coral there," he said.

When he looks at all the new growth, he sees hope.

Marine biologist Ken Nedimyer plants coral as part of the conservation effort in the Florida Keys. CBS News

Because of disease, pollution and warming ocean temperatures, coral coverage in Florida has decreased from about 50 percent 30 years ago to 7 percent today.

When the reefs die off, there are dire consequences.

"The tourism collapses, you know the whole economy of the reefs changes, and the whole ecosystem just degrades," Nedimyer said.

Nedimyer solution is to remove pieces of healthy coral every six months. Then, using a waterproof adhesive, he mounts them onto concrete slabs or hooks where they grow until they are ready for transplant.

"We're starting to transplant Elkhorn coral out to the reef, which is a very exciting coral," he said. "There's no other coral like it in the world."

"The Elkhorn coral forms these huge massive barrier reefs on the outside, and they like waves smashing on them. If we don't have them taking the brunt of those waves, then the shorelines going to, you know, your beachfront house is going to take the brunt of those waves," he added.

Nedimyer recently received permission from the government to plant 50,000 pieces of coral on protected reefs in the Florida Keys.

But he needs money to do that. His group, the Coral Restoration Foundation, relies mostly on private donations. He only has enough money to keep operations running through January.

"I'm not ready to quit," he said. "We have a lot to, and we're confident that we'll find some way, somehow to make it happen."

Nedimyer plans to go global, restoring not only Florida's lost coral but saving coral around the world a small piece of a time.

  • Elaine Quijano
    Elaine Quijano

    Elaine Quijano was named a CBS News correspondent in January 2010. Quijano reports for "CBS This Morning" and the "CBS Evening News," and contributes across all CBS News platforms. She is based in New York.