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USGS researchers will conduct carbonate budget surveys of coral reefs in the Florida Keys to quantify how ongoing coral restoration by Mote Marine Laboratory affects reef growth.

A coral worn smooth with a badly eroded base
A reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary with little living coral and extensive bioerosion. Photo taken under research permit number FKNMS-2016-085-A1. Credit: USGS, Ilsa Kuffner.

Corals create essential reef habitat that supports biodiversity, fisheries production, tourism, and shoreline protection—ecosystem services that are valued at more than $8.5 billion in south Florida alone. The persistence of that habitat, and critical ecological and socioeconomic functions it supports, relies on the balance between the processes of reef growth and erosion. Major declines in coral populations in recent decades has resulted in erosion becoming the dominant process on most of Florida’s reefs. Now, many reefs that took thousands of years to build are rapidly eroding away. Coral restoration—the process of growing and replanting new corals on degraded reefs— has become an increasingly popular tool for reviving coral populations in Florida and around the world. Although many coral-restoration programs also aim to improve important reef functions like reef growth, few have quantified the impact of restoration on the reef-growth process.

SPCMSC scientists are addressing this research gap using a method known as carbonate-budget modeling. Carbonate-budget models—which use modern reef surveys to estimate the balance between growth and erosion—provide a powerful tool for evaluating restoration success that goes beyond typical measures of coral health or survival. These models can be used to directly quantify how coral restoration will affect the process of reef growth. By conducting surveys at both restored and non-restored areas of reefs throughout the Lower Florida Keys (Key West and Big Pine Key), the SPCMSC researchers will be able to compare reef growth and carbonate budgets at these sites. These data will provide the first assessments of how coral restoration affects the function of reefs in the Florida Keys region.

This research is funded by a Protect Our Reefs award from Mote Marine Laboratory.

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