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Restoring Our Reefs

Coral reefs are central to the health and diversity of our oceans. Although coral reefs represent only one percent of ocean habitats, they serve as home, protection, and spawning grounds for a fourth of all marine life.

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Reefs regulate carbon dioxide levels in the water and prevent shoreline erosion by mitigating the effects of offshore currents and hurricanes. Florida possesses the third-largest reef system in the world. Disruption of reef biodiversity can trigger a loss of the reef as a whole. This is particularly true in the Florida Keys. High salinity levels in the Florida Bay, caused by the diminished flow of freshwater to the Everglades, threaten many of the species of coral comprising the Florida Keys reef system. Water pollution, sedimentation, and careless boating and diving that physically damage reefs can be locally problematic. Reefs can also be damaged or destroyed by hurricanes. However, there are several forces that have been battering Florida’s Coral Reef for nearly a decade.


lion fishThe intentional or accidental release of two species of lionfish (genus Pterois) into local waters over the past 30 years is causing further harm to Florida’s reefs and fisheries. Large lionfish populations now exist in the Caribbean, western Atlantic, and the Gulf of Mexico. Native to the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, lionfish have no known significant local predators. With its formidable venomous spinal tissue, sit-and-wait ambush tendencies, and the ability to consume prey more than half of its length, the lionfish is quite the intimidating predator to smaller fish and invertebrates, many of which are important to keeping reefs clear of algae.


Corals, when stressed, also become susceptible to disease. A previously unknown coral disease called stony coral tissue loss disease appeared in the upper Keys in 2014 and has since spread throughout the entire reef – more bad news for a reef that has lost half of its coral over the last two centuries.

Our Foundation is committed to the long-term restoration of Florida’s reefs. We work with FWC, The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, NOAA, and others to combat coral disease, establish long-term monitoring of reef restoration efforts, and identify breakthrough strategies that will substantially reduce lionfish numbers throughout Florida waters, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean.

And since the progress of stony coral tissue loss disease, our Foundation, FWC, Disney, SeaWorld, and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) have quietly been holding the largest amount of rescued corals in a non-descript Orlando warehouse called the Florida Coral Rescue Center thanks to a generous starter kit from World Wide Corals. The center is the largest facility of its kind in the U.S. and will play a significant role in the future of the coral reefs; scientists are already seeing corals reproducing!

Rescuing corals ahead of the disease progression was an attempt to keep corals from getting sick and safeguard their genetic material to repopulate the reef. Many of the coral species had never been managed in human care before and little was known about their needs. But coral aquarists have advanced coral science, developed new coral care techniques, and ensured optimum coral welfare. In some cases, they are observing behaviors that researchers and field biologists have never observed before, like the reproduction of threatened cactus corals.


We act as an emergency funder during other crises, like the marine heatwave of 2023. As Florida’s summer weather brought a devastating coral bleaching event to south Florida, researchers across the Florida Keys began scrambling to save our coral reef. To make matters worse, the marine heatwave did not discriminate against its victims: naturally occurring or lab-grown, both coral types were affected.

In some areas in the Lower Keys, researchers noted 100% coral mortality after prolonged heat exposure. Eastern Dry Rocks, located within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, where we have funded restoration, was hit hard. In 2022, Reef Renewal USA, a nonprofit dedicated to restoring endangered reefs, completed six dive trips and outplanted 2,510 individual staghorn corals in Eastern Dry Rocks thanks to a $30,000 grant from our Foundation. Mike Echevarria, President of Reef Renewal, and his team jumped into action to save their hard work this summer.

Once corals across the reef were relocated to land-based facilities, experts were needed to help with their care, a different skill set than caring for corals in the ocean. Enter HeaRT: the Heat Response Team. A united public-private partnership among the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, FWC, and our Foundation lent a helping hand to coral care centers like the Keys Marine Laboratory. Coral aquarists arrived in waves (pun-intended) to assess the state of rescued corals and determine the care needed to keep them healthy.

Thanks to our Foundation funding their travel, the first team arrived in the Keys quickly, led by Justin Zimmerman, zoological supervisor of aquariums at SeaWorld Orlando and supervisor at FCRC. Upon arrival at the facility, Justin reported that overall coral health was fair, and in most cases better than anticipated. The response required to combat this thermal crisis has never been witnessed before and we’re honored to be a part of the work.

We’re not just responding to coral crises like disease and warming waters, we’re also helping to fund innovative approaches to coral restoration via our new Freedom to Fail grant. Launched in 2023 for Mission: Iconic Reefs, the grant allows researchers to push boundaries without fear of failure. This experimental approach provides valuable insights, enabling us to shift from a focus on quantity to quality in coral restoration, creating more intentional and effective restoration processes. The first round of recipients included developing methods for faster coral planting techniques, increasing diademas near outplanted corals, and developing a novel way to track how much coral fish eat. In our commitment to Florida’s Coral Reef, we will continue to be both responsive and proactive to save one of our greatest natural resources.

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Protecting Wild Florida Begins With You.

Protecting wild Florida begins with you. From Pensacola Bay to Key West, our Foundation is working to protect Florida’s natural lands and waters and the wildlife they harbor.

Help ensure future generations can experience wild Florida by donating now.



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