DIVERS VOLUNTEER ON CORAL RESTORATION IN FLA. KEYS – U

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Ken Nedimeyer likes to say that he breathes new life into coral reefs.

In fact, he’s been doing it for more than a decade, and recreational divers are volunteering in the effort.

“We are trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again,” said Nedimeyer, whose Coral Restoration Foundation has planted four coral nurseries off the shores of the Florida Keys. The foundation offers workshops and diving trips for recreational divers who help by cleaning and preparing new coral for planting.

“We are trying to get people to realize that it was a lot better and it can be brought back again,” Nedimeyer added.

Divers helping out with the work first get a crash course in everything about corals. They learn that coral reefs are experiencing a rapid decline, particularly in the Caribbean.

The decline of coral has dire implications. Coral reefs, much like a rain forest, support a huge amount of biodiversity; attract tourism and commercial fishing; and act as a natural barrier to coastal erosion during storms. In the Florida Keys, staghorn coral (cylindrical branches) and elkhorn coral (antler-like branches) face local extinction. Both are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has proposed listing them as endangered.

“Corals are dying rapidly, much more rapidly than we believe they have in the past, which is a problem for sustaining the populations,” said Margaret Miller, an ecologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service of NOAA. “Caribbean coral reefs are already dramatically changed from the way we understand they should look because 50 to 80 percent of the coral has already been lost from most Caribbean reefs.”

Nedimeyer’s four coral nurseries are thriving. But Miller cautioned that while the “nurseries are helping us keep pace with this negative decline,” there needs to be a concerted effort to address larger problems such as global warming and the chemical makeup of the ocean “if coral reefs throughout the world are going to survive.”

In the meantime, recreational divers can join marine scientists in helping to buy time through the reef restoration efforts.

“The idea is to come up with a simple process and train people just like you to do it,” Nedimeyer told a group of seven volunteer divers at a recent workshop in Key Largo that includes a series of educational lectures and hands-on dives to restore corals.

Nedimeyer explained to the group that disease, severe cold fronts, multiple years of coral bleaching (caused by warmer water and other environmental factors) and frequent hurricanes are among the “stressors” that have contributed to the rapid decline of the coral, along with climate change, overfishing, coastal development and more.

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