Looks like the Keys reef is as resilient as its people

The coral and fish seem healthy at Molasses Reef, as seen in this Nov. 7 photo.
The coral and fish seem healthy at Molasses Reef, as seen in this Nov. 7 photo.

Just what makes that little old ant think he’ll move that rubber tree plant?

Anyone knows an ant, can’t — move a rubber tree plant. But he’s got high hopes. He’s got high apple pie, in the sky hopes. Oops there goes another rubber tree plant.” (From the 1959 Oscar winning Frank Sinatra song “High Hopes” illustrating how determination and persistence can overcome seemingly insurmountable adversity.)

Seems like a good song to describe the resilience of folks who live and work in the Florida Keys after Category 4 Hurricane Irma roared through the island chain on Sept. 10.

After Irma struck, first responders came through and surveyed the damage and safety of structures, roads and bridges in the Keys.

Then, when the bridges and roads seemed safe, residents were allowed to return to start rebuilding their homes and businesses. All manner of government agencies, volunteers, churches and good neighbors provided help.

It turns out a similar process played out in the reef system that borders the Florida Keys. During a 10-day period ending Oct. 19, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other organizations conducted a “rapid assessment” surveying over 50 sites on the reef.

The assessment found that Hurricane Irma caused widespread damage and that the most severe impacts were concentrated, similar to the what happened on land, in the reef system along the Lower and Middle Keys. A full report is expected later this fall

Lauri MacLaughlin, a regional research associate at the NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, said the damage “varied from reef to reef. It seemed like some of the shallower reefs had a broader range of impacts. It was rather alarming and slightly devastating, but for all of the corals that we saw disturbed and turned over and flipped, we also saw amazing corals that were incredibly resilient and still fanning and holding their own. I remember feeling very relaxed and thankful that there were some corals that could hold up against that kind of wave energy.”

As with damage on land, debris also was a problem for the reef. “Lobster traps were a very large part of (what) we observed out there. We have our hands full, as one our next phases of triage (reef stabilization) is to arrange with some members of the public and local charter operators to remove that debris,” said MacLaughlin.

“We also saw boat parts. We saw pieces of fiberglass, and I think that I even saw a section of a hull. On one of our reefs we found what looked like a concrete pipe that was maybe 15 to 20 feet long, which had rolled around and scarified an entire area that looked like a parking lot,” she said.

Damage to the reef was categorized into three levels, with 14 sites being identified as the “most worthy or promising for stabilization,” according to MacLaughlin. “Those sites included iconic locations, large corals, species of interest or threatened, and corals worthy of putting upright because 50 percent or more of the tissue was still alive.”

With the help of several organization, including the Coral Restoration Foundation, thousands of small corals were rescued by being epoxied to the bottom or wedged into spurs, hard bottom or the reef framework; several hundreds of medium corals were “up-righted” or raised out of sand grooves, and approximately one hundred large corals were up-righted or wedged in a safe location.

Force Blue

A group of five Force Blue team members (special operations combat veterans trained in coral reef restoration) from Alaska, New York, New Jersey, Florida and the United Kingdom came to the Keys for eight days to help with the reef stabilization efforts.

The team’s Facebook page describes some of the team’s efforts in military “dispatch” format:

“Today, FORCE BLUE team alongside Coral Restoration Foundation went to the CRF Tavernier Coral Nursery located approximately 3 miles out from the shorelines of Tavernier, FL. The combined teams rebuilt coral trees that were lost or destroyed during Hurricane Irma. An astounding 500 new fragments of Staghorn Coral was replanted onto the coral trees in the nursery. In a couple months these corals will be ready to be harvested and taken to the reef.”

“Today, FORCE BLUE team alongside National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Coral Restoration Foundation went to Looe Key off of Summerland Key, based out of Mote Marine Lab Center for Tropical Research. The team effort consisted of searching for coral that had been displaced due to Hurricane Irma & flipping the coral back into place allowing the coral to recover itself and thrive. There were 3 different team assignments.

TEAM 1: Flipping coral with lift bags

TEAM 2: Stabilizing fragments of Elkhorn Coral. Elkhorn Coral is threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

TEAM 3: Collecting corals for cementation back onto the reef.”

“Today, FORCE BLUE along with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Coral Restoration Foundation engaged in triage and restoration work of the coral reef system off of Marathon Key. The team performed flipping & stabilization of several corals that would have otherwise died. The biggest feat the team accomplished while utilizing lift bags was flipping & stabilizing an over 150-year-old Brain Coral weighing in at nearly 700 pounds, returning it to the reef to allow it to recover and thrive.”

After the Florida Keys’ mission Force Blue Founder and Executive Director Jim Ritterhoff said: “The coral stabilization effort in the Keys is exactly the type of mission for which the team members have been training. Their dedication to the task and the results they achieved demonstrate how valuable they are in helping to maintain and restore our valuable ocean resources.”

Members of Blue Force also went to Puerto Rico to help repair some of the damage caused to its reef structures by Hurricane Maria, which struck the island as a high-end Category 4 hurricane on Sept. 20.

Jessica Levy, restoration program manager for the Coral Restoration Foundation said: “In addition to the broader assessment of the reef system, our monitoring team documented specific damage sustained at our (the foundation’s) restoration sites. Understanding the impact on out-planted corals at restored sites will help us to learn how best to move forward in our restoration efforts.”

Concerning the foundation’s nurseries Levy said: “Our nurseries fared remarkably well. Most of the nursery structures remained in place and intact, which gives testament to their design and construction withstanding a storm like that.”

“A lot of the damages within the nursery settings came from debris-like traps and lines that had been deposited in the nurseries during the storm,” Levy added.

“We did experience some loss to our staghorn (Acropora cervicornis) production stock in our main Tavernier nursery. Our dive teams have been working to fragment the remaining corals within the nursery to start to rebuild our outplant stock for next year,” said Levy

Levy said the foundation is confident that the organization will be able to replenish it nursery stock and move forward with its planned restoration activities.

“Our reaction and desire to move forward is not all that different from the overall reaction to major storms and natural disasters: You assess, then rebuild. That’s why we’ve pushed to understand the impact to our reefs, learn from it, and in turn, how best to strengthen coral restoration efforts moving forward,” she said.

“The dive community could think about what happened; use the information to promote ecotourism; and teach people about the importance of a healthy reef system and what they can do to be better stewards of our waters,” Levy recommended.

MacLaughlin encourages scuba divers to get back into the ocean.

“Even after the storm the reef still is amazing,” said MacLauglin. “Visibility can be an issue. The hurricane pushed the sediment up into the bay and now it is coming back into the ocean from the natural southwest flow of the water. But, some days the underwater visibility can be spectacular - especially on the deeper reefs and man-made reefs such as the purposely sunken ships.”

For more on NOAA and its partners assessment of coral reef damage in the Florida Keys following Hurricane Irma, see https://floridakeys.noaa.gov/whatsnew/releases/2017/20171024-noaa-partners-assess-coral-reef-damage-following-hurricane-irma.html.

For information about the Coral Restoration Foundation, see https://coralrestoration.org/. The Force Blue website is https://forceblueteam.org/.