Coral reef restoration and other resilience projects win national funding

White patches on this coral are signs of tissue dying. Biologists and volunteers are working to replant certain species of Florida corals most resistant to disease and pollution. Photo by NOAA

Florida has netted nearly $13 million in public-private grants from the National Coastal Resilience Fund for projects to restore or expand natural systems needed to protect coastlines from climate-induced sea-level rise and severe weather.

Florida’s projects include nearly $5 million granted to the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation to rescue dying Florida coral reefs in the Florida Keys, as announced this week by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The funds will be matched by other sources, for a total of $10.3 million to plant elkhorn and staghorn corals at Eastern Dry Rocks, one of seven focus sites of NOAA’s “Mission: Iconic Reefs.” Various corals on the Great Florida Reef are dying off at alarming speed due to disease and pollution, according to marine scientists.

“This grant signals a turning point for reef restoration,” said Scott Winters, CEO of Coral Restoration Foundation, a partner in Mission: Iconic Reefs, in a statement reacting to the grant award. “Kicking off the work at Eastern Dry Rocks is about more than the 35,000 corals we will be providing. We see this as the beginning of an era of focused cooperation around reef restoration. And it is happening not a moment too soon.”

Coral reefs contribute significantly to the multibillion value of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary as an international tourism destination, according to a July 2019 Foundation report, and serve as buffers against storm surge and wave energy that erode coastlines.  But marine scientists have documented widespread die-offs and damage from stony coral tissue disease and water pollution.

Another major Resilience Fund project in Florida will create a Pensacola Bay Living Shoreline by constructing offshore reef breakwaters, sandy beach habitat, and aquatic habitat at Sherman Inlet. The living shoreline is designed to nurture marine life and buffer Naval Air Station Pensacola from storms and flooding. The grant is for $2.5 million; other sources have committed to pay $11.9 million.

In Jacksonville, a $4.3 million grant will help restore McCoys Creek, cypress and hardwood forests, and 35 acres of floodplain and wetlands that nurture fish and shrimp. Other sources pledged to pay $14 million for the project.

Six other Florida projects around the state are being funded at amounts from $74,000 to $294,000.

The partnership that funds the National Coastal Resilience Fund was created in 2018, one year after hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria caused catastrophic damage that placed the cost for U.S. weather disasters that year above $306 billion.

The fund says its public and private partners believe resilience projects, which cost far less than hurricane recovery, will reduce loss of life, property damage, and destruction of coastlines.

The 2020 projects, ranging from Hawaii to Maine to Puerto Rico, aim to restore or expand coastal marshes and wetlands, dunes and beaches, oyster and coral reefs, forests, coastal rivers, floodplains, and barrier islands that naturally protect coastlines. Many also serve to enhance fisheries and wildlife.

An atypical project in the group aims to address chronic flooding in southeast Detroit by creating nature-based systems for dispersing stormwater.