A 'Reefolution' in the Florida Keys

An ambitious project attempts to restore the entire structure of damaged coral reef

Don't fool with Mother Nature, the saying goes. But what happens when someone does - can humans "fix" the mistake?

Environmentalists in the Florida Keys were confronted with this problem after two large ships ran aground a few years ago, gouging a verdant spine of fragile coral that had taken centuries to develop.

Now scientists are nearing completion of an ambitious habitat project to replace part of the underwater ecosystem - the country's only living barrier coral reef. And it's working.

The coral ecosystem, which snakes down Florida's Atlantic coast for 220 miles, houses colorful marine coral with alluring names such as giant brain coral, star coral, elkhorn coral, and sea fans, a stunning purple, plum-like coral that washes with the tide on the shallow ocean floor.

Coral consists of polyps, or animals that form colonies and secrete calcium carbonate to attach to objects. Without these critical coral formations, some of which are more than 400 years old, the area is vulnerable to storms and erosion.

The Florida Keys attract more than 6 million visitors a year, many of them snorkelers and scuba divers. They come for underwater glimpses of exotic coral, seagrass meadows, sponges, fish, snapper, and damsel fish, for example. These aquatic treasures can be found on the reef's bottom, as shallow as 6 feet deep in some places, and accessible from some beaches by simply walking into the ocean.

Over the years, however, healthy corals have been harmed by coral diseases and decreased amounts of underwater cover. Pollution, overharvesting of resources, increasing boat traffic, and other problems are adversely affecting the Keys. Meanwhile, abundant fisheries are declining.

The ship groundings horrified environmentalists who had been working to save the Keys from further degradation. The accidents both occurred during a three-week period in 1989 in less than 10 feet of water, after each vessel tried to push itself off the reef after ramming into it. Total destruction measured more than 3,000 meters and destroyed 70 percent of the coral there.

"That area was leveled. The ship groundings produced catastrophic damage," says DeeVon Quirolo, project director of Reef Relief, a Key West-based environmental group.

Today scientists are completing what has been called a "reefolution" - a massive restoration of coral areas that the ships destroyed as they tried to break free from the reef. But lacking nature's talents, engineers have replaced the ocean craters with artificial cement boulders and rods.

In one reef skeleton crater that is the size of several small automobiles, scientists and engineers added beams to replace the coral foundation. Then they loaded precast six-ton rounded cement boulders on a crane and lowered them into the crater. In the second site, they placed quarried limestone boulders over the rubble and pumped in sand.

Because sea animals require three-dimensional habitats to thrive (that's why aquarium owners create fish habitats inside them), reef replacements must have the same character. To create a familiar habitat, scientists poured cement between the boulders and are now transferring new coral colonies that will attach themselves to the cement boulders.

According to Billy Causey, superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, an untrained eye might not notice the replacement at all. However, he added, "we have a considerable way to go." Coral and coral larvae will be transplanted for two more years and new growth will be slow. Some corals grow only one centimeter per year.

Although scientists around the world have used cement to patch reefs, this $1.25 million project represents the first time that an entire reef structure, including its skeleton, has been recreated.

"We are on the cutting edge of taking technology into the marine environment and doing something that has never been done before," says Causey, who with his staff has taken his expertise to countries as far as Malaysia, Australia, and China.

"It's incredible what they have done," says Mr. Quirolo, who has followed the project.

Helping others isn't the only good to come from the ships' destruction, says Causey. The ship groundings, which became what environmentalists termed "the final physical insult" to the reef, prompted Congress to designate the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and expand the buffer zone prohibited to ships. More good news is that the project was also paid for by the ship companies who settled out of court.

Of course, the money won't replace the natural reef, Causey says, but it helps. "We are undoing something devastating that humans have done. I don't feel we are replacing Mother Nature. We are using our intelligence to repair [the damage] that has been done by humans."

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