The Nature Conservancy, NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program and seven U.S. coral reef jurisdictions completed a $13.5 million, 10-year partnership to support the effective management and protection of coral reefs. Here’s a peek at how that partnership translated to work on-the-ground and in-the-sea – and what that means for Florida’s reefs.

Where We Work

Florida’s bank-barrier reef system supports 1,400 species of marine plants and animals, including more than 40 species of coral and 500 species of fish. This chain of reefs stretches from the remote Dry Tortugas up through the areas offshore of Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Martin counties. These reefs are as much a part of South Florida’s cultural landscape as they are a foundation of the biological and ecological seascape. From the earliest Floridians, people have derived sustenance from the sea. Florida’s coral reefs generate $6.3 billion in local sales and provide 71,000 jobs annually.

Our Approach

Building on what has worked in other regions, Florida is working to develop and promote resilience-based management strategies to enable its coral reefs to adapt to global climate change and withstand local threats. Projects engage a diverse set of partners to improve reef health and enhance the sustainability of reef-dependent commercial and recreational enterprises.

Our Accomplishments

Our work has directly benefited 204 square miles of coral reef habitat. Partnership efforts have supported the comprehensive collection of coral reef monitoring data across the Florida Reef Tract and the training of 328 people in coral reef survey methods, resulting in 2,510 sites surveyed. This is the longest-standing cross-jurisdictional approach to informing reef management in the state.

  • Developed the “Florida Reef Tract Coral Bleaching Response Plan” to provide a strategic approach for monitoring bleaching and other events, as well as protocols for early warning, impact assessment, communications and management actions.
    • Coordinated 13 survey teams of scientific divers to conduct up to 250 coral reef surveys annually to monitor and assess bleaching. 

In 2014, survey results showed severe bleaching from Dry Tortugas through Biscayne National Park, making it the most significant coral bleaching event since the Florida Reef Resilience Program began in 2005. In 2016, surveys showed substantially lower levels of bleaching; however, high disease prevalence and disease mortality was recorded at numerous sites, leading to adaptation of monitoring protocols for better documentation of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease.

    • Post Hurricane Irma, survey methods were utilized to determine impacts on coral reefs, resulting in the prioritization of reefs for restoration efforts (See Success Story).
    • Designed and supported the successful transfer of Florida Reef Resilience Program (FRRP) Disturbance Response Monitoring (DRM) effort to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI). Annual DRM surveys, previously coordinated by The Nature Conservancy since 2005, have now been incorporated into the state’s monitoring program to increase sustainability of the DRM effort and more firmly establish linkages between the monitoring information and reef management actions.
  • Provided coordination and technical support to develop, inform and implement two public planning processes to improve the management of Florida’s coral reefs.
    • Collected, and provided decision makers and stakeholders access to reef tract-wide data to increase effective, comprehensive, science-based on-the-ground management efforts.
    • Collaborated with state partners to support the analysis of resilience across the Florida reef tract. Recommendations from the summary report were shared with local partners.

Success Story: Collaborative Monitoring for Effective Reef Management

Through Florida’s Reef Resilience Program (FRRP), the Partnership has supported coordination between scientists from 13 partner agencies for 14 years. Since 2005, more than 2,000 FRRP Disturbance Response Monitoring (DRM) surveys have been completed to document bleaching impacts and inform disturbance response efforts. Although it was originally designed to document the effects of coral bleaching, the FRRP’s DRM survey method is adaptable to other coral reef disturbances. In 2015, 250 surveys documented a disease outbreak along the Florida Reef Tract.

Data analysis showed this was the largest disease outbreak—in terms of range and impacted coral colonies—documented through 14 years of surveys. Strategic communication materials were created and outreach to local media was conducted to raise awareness of the disease outbreak and its impact on coral reefs. As a result, articles were published locally as well as in the Washington Post. In 2017, DRM methods were modified and utilized to pinpoint the location of the coral disease front advancing along the Florida Reef Tract.

In 2017, Hurricane Irma crossed over the Florida Keys with sustained winds of 130-miles per hour and gusts as high as 160-miles per hour. Massive damage was inflicted on Florida’s coral reefs and island infrastructure. Capitalizing on longstanding FRRP partnerships between public agency reef managers, academic institutions and NGO’s, DRM survey methods were adapted yet again to determine hurricane impacts on coral reefs from Miami to Key West. These assessments resulted in the prioritization of reefs for restoration efforts and the immediate deployment of restoration efforts at 14 percent of the survey sites ranked as top priorities for stabilization.

“Adapting the Disturbance Response Monitoring protocol has enabled the collection of data on hurricane-related reef conditions and the ongoing coral disease outbreak; this vital data is directly informing management actions.”  –Joanna Walczak, Southeast Regional Administrator for the Florida Coastal Office of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection

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