For generations, the coral reef has been the backbone of the Florida Keys, both economically and environmentally, and is critically important to the state as well.
In Florida, the coral reef generates $4.4 billion in expenditures a year, supports 81,300 jobs and protects $675 million a year in infrastructure from flooding and storms, according to a recent action plan by The Nature Conservancy.
However, the reef is as fragile as it is great, and the threats come in many forms, from humans to disease. And with more boats in the Florida Keys and Florida, now at 1 million registered boats in the state, the need to protect the reef is more important than ever.
Two pieces of federal legislation have picked up momentum this year and are making their way through the Senate and House of Representatives to bring millions of dollars into South Florida for much-needed coral research and restoration.
The Resilient Reefs Act was first proposed in 2018 and 2019, but the bill had not moved after that. Recently, however, there has been forward progress, with this year’s version of the bill having been successfully voted out of its committees of jurisdiction in both the House and Senate, and the bills are on the Chamber floors.
This bill reauthorizes annual funding for reef restoration activities and provides about 30% more funding for these activities. The legislation also de-federalizes a portion of the funding, making it directly accessible to state and local governments.
The bills would set aside up to $35 million a year for much-needed coral reef restoration, which is currently being done in the Keys by Mote Marine Laboratory, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, The Nature Conservancy, Coral Restoration Foundation and other conservation groups.
The legislation would also authorizes the federal government and the Coral Reef Taskforce to respond specifically to coral reef emergencies such as Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease, which is currently decimating large boulder corals from Martin County through the Florida Keys.
Florida’s Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott support the federal legislation, with Rubio being a co-sponsor of the Senate version of the bill and Florida Keys’ federal House Rep. Carlos Gimenez, R-Miami, as well as every other Florida congressperson, signed on as co-sponsors in the House.
The Monroe County Commission will be considering a resolution supporting this legislation for its April meeting, according to Lisa Tennyson, Monroe County’s Legislative Affairs Director.
The County Commission has been a strong advocate for legislation and activities that work to protect and restore our coral reef ecosystem,” Tennyson said. “In recent years, the Commission has passed a number resolutions supporting the passage federal and state legislation to protect the reef, and its significant efforts to secure water quality funding each year are founded on protecting the reef and other marine resources.”
The new federal legislation is also supported in a comprehensive five-year action plan by The Nature Conservancy released late last year, as the plan lists such funding as a priority. The Nature Conservancy lists such legislation as one of its policy priorities in its new 2021-2026 Resilience Action Plan for Florida’s Coral Reef.
The Nature Conservancy’s report details both benefits and the threats facing Florida’s reef and lays out a road map to help restoring it.
Florida’s Coral Reef is among the state’s most remarkable and distinguishing features. The coral reef extends 350 miles, from the remote Dry Tortugas to its northern terminus near the St. Lucie Inlet on the mainland. The diversity and abundance of marine life in this region is a national treasure unequalled in the continental United States, according to The Nature Conservancy.
Beyond its biological values, the living reef is an engine of prosperity, creating billions of dollars in tourism and fishing-related economic activity each year. It also serves as an important breakwater, providing a natural shield from hurricanes, reducing flood risk for residents of Monroe, Miami- Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, and Martin counties, the Nature Conservancy’s action plan stated.
“Yet, the vitality of the reef is severely and increasingly compromised by a mixture of global, regional, and local threats. Land-based sources of pollution, direct damage from fishing, diving, boating, and coastal construction, warming ocean temperatures and other consequences of global climate change have each chronically taken their tolls on reef condition for decades,” the action plan stated. “More recently, and much more rapidly, the emergence of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease has pushed many reef-building coral populations to the brink of collapse.
“Florida’s Coral Reef as we knew it in the 20th Century is rapidly declining, even as people continue to enjoy what remains of its beauty and economic productivity. To put this incredibly valuable natural resource on the road to recovery we must address the threats that are degrading it while simultaneously developing and deploying intervention and restoration methods for critical reef species populations and reef conditions. One approach without the other is not enough to save Florida’s Coral Reef from the rapid downward spiral that is evident today.”
The five-year Resilience Action Plan for Florida’s Coral Reef, which started in 2021, was developed by the Florida Reef Resilience Program to define the critical, near-term steps that the reef-management community, policy-makers and reef users must take now and maintain for the foreseeable future in order to tackle threats to reefs and rapidly increase restoration efforts. It is complementary to existing and emerging plans focused specifically on coral disease response, coral reef restoration and place-based management of the national and state parks, national marine sanctuary and state conservation areas that encompass essentially all of Florida’s Coral Reef. The plan is organized under three broad goals. Each goal has a specific set of action-takers in mind, reef managers, policymakers, and private stakeholders, respectively. Each goal is supported by specific objectives and each objective by even more specific actions, according to the Nature Conservancy.
GOALS IN MIND
The plan enables resilience-based management of Florida’s coral reef and covers water quality improvements, reduction of direct impacts like boat anchor damage and coping with the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification. These efforts are paired with recommendations for enhancing reef condition via coral disease interventions and active propagation and restoration of corals and other reef species. The scientific research and monitoring programs that inform, or should inform, reef conservation, management and sustainable use decision-making are covered in this goal, according to The Nature Conservancy.
“Reefs’ values to Florida’s economy are increasingly well-defined, but they are yet to be fully integrated into policy priorities at all levels of government,” the action plan stated. “This goal calls for informing policy decision makers about these values and collaborating with them on development of better policy and more sustainable funding streams to meet the needs of reefs and the people and communities who depend on them.
“Reef stakeholders — those whose economic success or quality of life are dependent on viable coral reefs — are the front line of coral reef conservation. This goal defines ways in which individuals (e.g., recreational fishermen, divers, and boaters), businesses (e.g., commercial fishermen and dive tour operators), and institutions like universities and non-governmental organizations are essential to successful conservation and restoration efforts. Taken together, this is the body of work required to protect and restore Florida’s Coral Reef while supporting private and commercial uses that benefit individuals, communities, the State of Florida, and the nation.”
The Nature Conservancy’s entire action plan can be found at https://www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/united-states/florida/stories-in-florida/florida-keys-reef-resilience-program/.