Restoring coral reefs in the Florida Keys


Every Tuesday before Morgan leaves for school, she grabs her lunch bag, water bottle, and scuba gear. Because Tuesdays are field lab days, she will spend most of her day on, near, or under the ocean. Its a school that understands that the future of most students will depend on the health of their marine environment. Morgan’s snorkeling reinforces his understanding of the environmental and economic connection and his awareness of the value of Florida’s Keys.

In the Florida Keys, a tourism-based economy means that approximately 60% of residents depend on the marine environment for their livelihood. that’s why United Way of Collier and the Keys leads innovative initiatives focused on strengthening the health, education and financial stability of this community, including joining efforts to restore coral reefs.

YesSince the 1970s, coral reefs have been dying at an unprecedented rate, according to the NASA Earth Observatory. With the environmental decline of native coral, coastal communities face increasing risk to their economy and decreasing protection during hurricanes. For the Florida Keys, these risks impact the future of our community.

There is no doubt: unhealthy and depleted reefs will harm the livelihoods of this community down the road. In response, United Way is taking a holistic approach to the economic and environmental sustainability of the Keys. We are leading a path to economic sustainability with restoration, incorporating educational benefits, global partnership perspectives, and the potential for “voluntourism” into a unique approach to revitalizing the Florida Keys. Learn more about our work at »Revitalizing the Florida Keys through Reef Restoration and Beyond.”

Through this collaborative work, United Way is a spark for similar projects in other communities around the world – and with other local United Ways – to help better understand how the environment can affect the quality of life and the financial stability.

The Florida Keys are a chain of islands stretching 120 miles off the southern tip of Florida. They are surrounded by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS), which helps protect local marine resources and their use. Reefs provide natural barriers against hurricanes and other storms, valued at over $200 million. Healthy reefs produce harvests of fish and other catch at sea, an essential source of food and income for recreational and commercial fishing. Of course, the natural beauty of healthy reefs fuels tourism.

To deal with the devastation of Key’s corals, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and its partners devised a 20-year plan called Mission: Iconic Reefs, a comprehensive approach to restoring corals at seven ecologically and culturally significant reef sites in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The intent is to restore live coral cover on the only barrier reef in North America from the current 2% to 25% ecologically sustainable.

As a catalyst for Mission: Iconic Reefsthe United Arab Emirates (UAE) has granted $3.5 million donation to United Way of Collier and the Keys to support coral restoration and education efforts. The donation is part of a larger $10 million pledge to Florida to help with Hurricane Irma relief and recovery efforts. In collaboration with NOAA, United Way will use a portion of the donation to support nonprofit reef restoration organizations’ innovation and invention techniques and local marine science education efforts.

The risks to the Florida Keys economy and infrastructure from declining coral and associated marine life are real and growing. Interventions like this are an attempt at nimble but massive efforts to alter this devastating trajectory.

Through coral planting (a method of taking cultured “baby” corals from a nearby “nursery” and permanently attaching them to bare spots on the reef), education, youth engagement and economic work, restoring coral reefs in the Keys can transform communities. . To foster opportunities for local, state, or national reef restoration organizations (or “practitioners”) to use their knowledge and research on coral planting, United Way will invest $2.8 million from the 3 UAE$.5 million in the form of matching funding.

United Way has previously funded practitioners selected for their creative approach, visionary thinking and organizational approach. Because United Way is people-centered, we recognize that the community should have a voice in deciding which organizations are most compatible with the needs of the Florida Keys, and we have incorporated this into the decision-making process.

We also want to ensure that the next generation of community leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs are invested in reef restoration work, even indirectly, through education and youth engagement:

  • United Way will invest $155,000 in scholarships to fund Florida Keys students who intend to study marine science-related subjects at Florida institutions of higher learning. And $180,000 of the UAE donation will be given by United Way to marine science schools and educational institutions in the Florida Keys to help teachers promote and further develop marine science.
  • Because the devastation of coral reefs is a pervasive problem around the world, United Way will also invest $150,000 to facilitate global partnerships to share knowledge about coral restoration, foster conversation and dialogue, and d ensure amplification of the issue with the wider environmental community.

Florida Keys communities are committed to working together for reef restoration, but there is always room to increase the reach. The need for volunteer-led activities is strong; Today’s reef restoration practitioners cannot do this alone. To tackle this effort on the scale needed to reverse the current decline, restoration practitioners must dramatically increase their efficiency by utilizing local volunteers and “voluntourism” opportunities.

We know United Way’s work on this project is a long-term endeavour. And our commitments to people, knowledge, funding and capacity are designed for long-term results. This is a major investment that we believe will change the future of our community.

It also required us to think holistically and understand the intersectionality of the components of the marine environment. Coral reefs are linked to the ocean on a global scale. Inland pollution is linked to the decline of the coastal environment. Seagrasses are linked to water quality. These are just some of the lessons that could be replicated in other environmentally dependent communities.

By “Revitalizing the Florida Keys with Reef Restoration and BeyonDcampaign, United Way is catalyzing efforts to restore North America’s only remaining barrier reef, supporting its continued viability and the vibrant Florida Keys community that depends on it. We hope this helps transform Morgan’s future and that of her community, because a healthy reef is the backbone of the Florida Keys.

You want to know more ? Find out how United Way is leading the way to economic sustainability with this case study.

Image used in blog is used with kind permission of Coral Restoration Foundation
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