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Key Largo Reef Restoration Conference Fueled By Urgency To Save Corals

The Ocean Agency
Coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef in 2017.

Time is running out to save the world’s coral reefs from irreversible damage, according to numerous studies

Scientists, engineers and environmentalists dedicated to saving dwindling coral reef populations are gathering in Key Largo this week for a global science symposium called Reef Futures 2018. Experts from over 30 countries are focusing solely on coral reef restoration.

Restoring reefs means targeting certain areas to repopulate with resilient, genetically-diverse corals. Reef Futures 2018 aims to "buy tropical reefs time."

Coral species are just like humans when it comes to tolerating diseases and infections, according to Sarah Fangman, superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

“What would be ideal is if we could find coral whose genetics make them strong and resistant against multiple stressors,” Fangman said during the symposium, which is being held at the Ocean Reef Club in the Keys.

“Right now we find that some corals can withstand heat stress, but they’re not so great with disease. And other corals are tough as nails when it comes to disease affects, but when the water starts getting too warm, they really suffer," she said.

To date, Fangman said most reef restoration is not happening at a pace that can cover the giant scale of the Florida Reef, which is the third largest coral barrier reef worldwide.

One technique being used is called outplanting, a kind of coral gardening. It involves transporting corals from nurseries, where they are cultivated, and attaching them back into their natural reef ecosystems. But it can be costly and time-intensive.

“We can put out a handful of coral on one single reef over the course of an hour, but we need something that can do thousands of outplants,” she said. “Being able to address this at the scale of the problem is something we still haven’t figured out.”

She said scientists can’t expect to return to a time when reefs didn’t suffer from the negative impacts of climate change -- impacts like coral bleaching.

But what reef restoration is trying to accomplish, she said, is to help nature help itself.

“This conference is a reflection of urgency, she said. “But what this conference is giving me is a sense of hope and a renewed and strengthened sense of purpose.”

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