Carysfort next target in coral restoration project

Ocean Reef community donated more than $100K so far

dgoodhue@keysreporter.comApril 3, 2014 

Coral Restoration Foundation volunteers plant coral specimens on Pickles Reef.


Jack Curlett, president of the Ocean Reef Conservation Association, says he hears a common reply from longtime Upper Keys residents when divers and snorkelers comment on how beautiful the reef is: "You should have seen it 30 years ago."

He heard a similar reply when he moved to the Ocean Reef, the gated North Key Largo community, more than 20 years ago.

But since then, the Keys branching corals have been in severe decline. On Carysfort Reef, for example, the closest reef to Ocean Reef, there has been a 92 percent decline in living coral from 1975 and 2000, according to NASA.

Curlett and others hope a monumental effort started by coral-growing pioneer Ken Nedimyer and members of his nonprofit Coral Restoration Foundation will turn the tide. Nedimyer, a former live-rock harvester, has become internationally known for his methods of growing elkhorn and staghorn coral in offshore nurseries and planting them on the reef, where they can grow and reproduce in the wild.

The program has been surprisingly successful in restoring coral to the reefs, which garnered Nedimyer CNN's "Hero of the Year" distinction in 2012.

Hundreds of volunteers come to the Keys every year to help Nedimyer plant the coral. That includes members of Diving With a Purpose, a Nashville, Tenn.-based volunteer underwater archaeology program founded in 2005 under the leadership of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers.

Kenneth Stewart, DWP program coordinator, said the group's goal is to develop a dedicated group of volunteers from all over the country who can rotate to the Keys to plant and maintain corals on Carysfort and other parts of the Keys reef.

"We're confident we can build this program," Stewart said.

DWP started out doing mainly archaeological dives in Biscayne National Park. Volunteers with the group have documented 10 shipwrecks, and have conducted two expeditions of the slave ship Guerrero.

Since its founding and through its involvement with the Coral Reef Foundation, DWP has realized the archaeological significance of the reef and is devoting more of its efforts to coral planting.

"Over the last couple of years, the importance of doing the coral restoration became clearer," said Angela Jones, a Diving With a Purpose member from Washington, D.C.

Carysfort is the latest project on which Nedimyer's Coral Reef Foundation is focused. CRF members began installing PVC pipe trees on the offshore nursery in December. The CRF attaches coral fragments on the trees, which over time grow to the point where they can be planted on the reef, said CRF board member Patti Gross.

The CRF operates on donations, and the people of Ocean Reef have donated more than $100,000 to the Carysfort operation, Curlett said. The donations have been appreciated and put to use.

"We started out with three trees in December and it just kept growing," Gross said.

Nedimyer said several factors have contributed to the reef's decline. They include cold snaps in 1977 and 2010, overfishing and sewage pollution.

The latter happened because until recently, most Keys properties used septic tanks and cesspits that leaked through porous limestone and into the ocean, bay and Gulf.

Nedimyer is optimistic this will be resolved by the state mandate that all properties in the Keys connect to centralized wastewater systems by December 2015.

"I think that's going to make a big difference," Nedimyer said. "You can see the bottom of most canals now."



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