As staghorn coral declines along Florida coast, planting project tests restoration plan – Sun Sentinel


Jupiter – Just 150 fragments of staghorn coral planted off the coast of Florida could give new hope to the state’s endangered reefs.

A boat carrying these fragments departed Tuesday afternoon for Jupiter, marking the start of a study of the temperature tolerance of corals on the North Florida Reef.

“This is the farthest north where this species has been planted,” said Shelby Thomas, founder and CEO of Ocean Rescue Alliance. “It will really help us better understand in the future if this is a suitable site to expand coral restoration efforts in Florida and see if the species can survive further north.”

The Ocean Rescue Alliance is a non-profit marine conservation and restoration organization that works in coral restoration and the creation of artificial reefs. It operates as far south as the Keys and now as far north as Jupiter.

They are working with the University of Miami to conduct research on coral tolerance to warmer water. The team will monitor the coral and collect tissue samples on a monthly basis. They are also working with Palm Beach County and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission on the planting effort.

Rob Bremer, a master’s student at the University of Miami, is working on this project with the Ocean Rescue Alliance. He said deteriorating coral off the coast of Florida makes such studies necessary.

“We’re losing a lot of corals every year, and reproductive rates are also dropping, which is a pretty scary sign,” Bremer said. “So between that and SCTLD [stony coral tissue loss disease] killing a ton of corals a year…that doesn’t really sound good for corals in Florida and around the world.

According to a study published by the University of Florida, climate change, human stressors and the loss of stony coral tissue have significantly reduced the presence of staghorn coral in southeast Florida. A 2020 study found staghorn coral populations have declined by more than 90% since the 1970s. As staghorn coral declines in its usual habitat in the Caribbean and southeast Florida, Bremer and Thomas are testing its survivability at the edge of its northernmost range.

“This project has a lot of potential to prove that corals can grow outside of their natural habitats or ranges,” Bremer said. “If these corals survive and continue to thrive as they have, I think assisted northward migration … could be very much a part of our restoration goals.”

The Ocean Rescue Alliance is also planting artificial reefs as part of its 1000 Mermaids Project, which ultimately aims to place 1,000 artificial reefs in Florida waters in the form of mermaid sculptures. Thomas calls this project “ecological art”, creating a habitat for marine life and a place for fishermen and divers. Currently, the team’s largest artificial reef consists of 35 mermaid structures off West Palm Beach.

“We can actually make a sculpture of any person or logo and make it into an artificial reef that creates habitat for fish and can help create structure on the seabed,” Thomas said. “All of our sculptures always have a habitat component, so they’re not just sculptures that don’t add any value to the environment.”

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, artificial reefs can have a positive ecological impact when done right. They can divert human traffic from natural reefs and provide shelter for fish and other species that require physical habitat. However, they could potentially provide habitat for invasive species or damage natural habitats.

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“Generally, I’m an advocate for artificial reefs,” Bremer said. “I think one of the most important things they can do is bring awareness to real reefs and natural beauty. They can also take a lot of the diving pressure off natural reefs.

In July, the Ocean Rescue Alliance plans to plant 30,000 corals near Hollywood.

“It’s really going to pave the way for a whole different variety of coral restoration research and community engagement,” Thomas said. “So we’re really looking forward to expanding our initiatives and audience engagement as well.”

Bremer agreed that public engagement could become increasingly important in conservation efforts.

“Ultimately, we probably can never do enough as scientists to completely reverse the tide against global warming and other anthropogenic factors,” he said. “So I think as a scientific community we also need to maybe become more comprehensive than what we’re generally used to and work to engage the public and make our voice heard in policy as well.”

Editor Olivia Lloyd can be reached at

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Networka multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, South Florida Sun Sentinel, Palm Beach Post, Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and Tampa Bay Times.


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