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Stimulating Coral Restoration

The Conservancy helped establish underwater nurseries to grow federally threatened staghorn and elkhorn coral.

The hypothesis went like this: Threatened staghorn and elkhorn corals, once abundant and productive reef builders in Florida and the Caribbean, could be propagated in underwater nurseries and used to restore reefs damaged by bleaching, hurricanes and disease. “These two species of coral are the most important to the reef system – they are the girders and I-beams of reefs that provide critical fish habitat,” said James Byrne, marine biologist for The Nature Conservancy, which is overseeing the project. 

The results proved the hypothesis correct – staghorn and elkhorn corals could be grown and propagated in nurseries and an experiment that began as one curious high schooler’s 4H project ultimately launched a whole new chapter in coral reef restoration and conservation.

Today, more than 30,000 babies are growing in Florida and Caribbean underwater nurseries, and more than 6,000 were transplanted onto reefs in 2012. 

Hope and Hardship for Coral Reefs in 2010

Excited by the possibilities for coral restoration along Florida’s unique reef track that runs between the Dry Tortugas and Fort Lauderdale, The Nature Conservancy first became involved with scaling up the small nursery project in 2004. The project caught on and nurseries were added in three additional regions of the Florida reef tract in 2006.

In 2009, with American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), scientists with The Nature Conservancy and partner organizations expanded the program further, and began growing staghorn and elkhorn corals at sites from Ft. Lauderdale to the Dry Tortugas in Florida and on St. Croix and St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Experts predict that the transplanted young corals will thrive and reproduce, helping to recover populations of these two threatened species. Scientists have strategically selected and designed planting site locations to maximize genetic diversity and the chance of sexual reproduction.

The initial goal to produce 12,000 coral colonies was more than met: 30,000 of the fast-growing branching corals were raised. Teams of scientists began outplanting the nursery corals this spring, and will continue for the next few years. While the ARRA grant has expired, a new NOAA grant allows for focus on the outplanting and additional monitoring of fish population changes in conjunction with the invigorated reefs.

“Millions of people depend on these reefs for food, coastal protection and income from tourism,” said Samuel Rauch, NOAA’s assistant administrator for fisheries. “Restoring them is not only an environmental imperative, it’s a public priority.”

The nursery project is managed by The Nature Conservancy in partnership with NOAA, Mote Marine Laboratory, Nova Southeastern University, University of Miami RSMAS, the Coral Restoration Foundation and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. It was one of 50 projects chosen to receive funding by NOAA’s Restoration Center through the America Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009. 

Learn more about the Florida Reef Resilience Program.

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