Raising Baby Corals for Reef Restoration

Restoring the Florida Keys, one piece at a time. 

Ken Nedimyer has been diving in the Florida Keys for 42 years. He used to make his living collecting tropical fish for the aquarium trade. At first business was good, but then Nedimyer began noticing a disturbing trend. “The reefs were dying around me,” he says, “and dead reefs didn’t have as many fish.” While scientists studied the declines, Nedimyer began devising solutions to help bring back coral.

There are many reasons for coral death. Damage from boats and overfishing are problems, while other corals “die by 1,000 cuts,” Nedimyer says, through an accumulation of assaults from disease, hurricanes, cold winters, hot summers, and the like. Brian Tissot, a Washington State University marine ecologist, adds that seemingly innocent activities—like buying dried starfish or shell jewelry—can support destructive activities, too. Since the 1970s about 98 percent of a type of coral species that provides critical structure for reefs has disappeared from Caribbean waters, according to the Acropora Biological Review Team. 

With ideas borrowed from the aquarium trade, Nedimyer and his daughter started experimenting with methods of growing and mounting corals. From a handful of original specimens, his underwater nursery has since burgeoned to roughly 25,000 corals. Largely fueled by volunteers, Nedimyer’s nonprofit Coral Restoration Foundation has transplanted thousands of corals from the nursery out into the reef, and replanted still more fragments of broken ones. 

“Restoration is an excellent way to try to recover reefs, because naturally they can take a long time to recover,” Tissot says. He emphasizes, though, that removing threats is paramount for success. Nedimyer agrees, saying, “It’s much better to protect what we have than try to rebuild what is broken.” 

For reefs that are broken, restoration can’t come too soon. The Foundation recently received permission to plant 50,000 corals over the next five years. Nedimyer’s long-term goal is to reestablish the Keys’ historic coral populations, and to get the community involved in the efforts. “Repairing and replanting reefs can be done,” he says. “It’s just a matter of people deciding to do it.”

This story originally appeared in the May-June 2012 issue as "Moral Coral."