Making the Case for Coral

By Jacqueline Brennan

The past year was an especially grim one for the U.S. coral stronghold that is coastal Florida

Global coral bleaching alerts – indicating changes in ocean conditions that may stress corals to the point of bleaching – occurred in 1983 and 2010, and most recently October 2015. The latest warning crescendos in concert with widespread disease observed in the largest coral habitat in the continental U.S., and this bleaching and blight coincide with the first of three port expansion projects in the state.

Coastal and landlocked municipalities rely on dredging to remove sediment buildup from waterways, as natural sedimentation can congest channels and harbors. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issues permits for the disposal of dredged materials, and governments are tasked with managing the displaced matter. For Florida—a state that is economically beholden to its beaches—there is added incentive to dredge in order to replenish sand lost through natural coastal erosion on public beaches. The drawback of dredging to create new manmade beaches and to expand ports is that the unearthed sediment can impose significant stress on corals.

Miami was the first Florida locale to undergo a port expansion. Prior to any assessment of the impact of the dredge on Miami’s corals, the cities of Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach had already approved dredge projects to take place over the next four years. Some South Florida coral experts are leery about the northward procession of Army Corps dredges, as Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach are two cities along the northern-most stretch of the largest coral treasure in the country.

By all accounts, doom and gloom seems to be the present-day calling card for these organisms that have hitherto survived millenniums, and presumably whatever wiped out Animalia’s Jurassic progenitors. But in the words of one Miami coral guru, Colin Foord, “Bad news is often good news for scientists.”

Foord is a marine biologist and one of the brains behind Miami’s homegrown, art-science success story, Coral Morphologic. Foord suggests that coral has been cast as the “canary in the coal mine,” not because competent, marine-conscious individuals are in short supply. Rather, the opportunity to address the die-off of reef habitat hinges on funding, and funding’s easier when there’s urgency.

A blacktip shark swims in a lagoon off Millennium Island. Compared to Atlantic-Caribbean reef systems with a reef coverage of 5-10 percent, reefs like this in the Pacific have a much healthier 85-100 percent coverage.

“It is far easier for a fire department to get funding when a forest fire is spreading towards town, as compared to when there are no fires to put out,” Foord says. Still, with an improved funding outlook, Foord and several other Floridians who are deeply invested in the wellness of coral habitat still have an uphill battle in rendering the value of reef habitats. As one of many global coral crusaders based in South Florida, Foord suspects that the economic argument may be a source of salvation for coral in these times.

A Coral Cohort

Foord was my entree into a formidable network of South Florida-based coral aficionados. He introduced me to Rachel Silverstein, executive director and waterkeeper of Miami Waterkeeper, and Ken Nedimyer, founder and president of the Coral Restoration Foundation. By way of Nedimyer, I was directed to the Florida Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. In 2009, it was instrumental in marshaling a $3.3 million grant that enabled Nedimyer and his partners to carry out a large reef restoration nursery project. At a time when we are accustomed to applauding nine-figure gifts for most any charitable good under the sun, this amount may seem small. But, as yet, that phenomenon hasn’t necessarily extended to every brand of charitable good underwater. Thus Nedimyer attests that this $3.3 million investment in reef restoration amounted to “the largest single organized effort to restore Atlantic-Caribbean coral habitat.” That’s to say a little can go a long way for coral, and the return can be colossal.

A personal aside: I was asked by my first contact at The Nature Conservancy’s Florida Chapter if I was a diver.

Alas, nay. But I realized my summary of a few weeks’ worth of in-depth conversations about coral must have invited the question. Hailing from a landlocked state, I have minimal inherited knowledge about ocean habitat. Thus, I was inclined to solicit experts on the subject, and in the matter of a week, I could pass for being conversant about Florida’s reefs. That is a testament to Florida’s coral-advocating knowledge base, which struck me in their cohesion, nimbleness, and ability to make the case for coral to a lay audience. A conversation with any combination of coral-mongering voices reveals a unified undercurrent that accords with Foord’s impression. Namely, there is a need to render coral advocacy efforts through an economic lens for funders, policymakers, and—perhaps most importantly—the public at large.


Economic Valuation Studies

The most literal approach to conceptualizing the economic value of coral is a dollar-for-dollar economic valuation study. Both Caitlin Lustic, the coral recovery coordinator of the Florida Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, and Silverstein of Miami Waterkeeper, allude to previous Florida reef valuation studies. Incidentally, Florida’s biggest commercial breadwinner—the tourism industry—depends upon the health of its reefs. “Reefs are valuable in their own right in terms ofbiodiversity and wildlife,” Lustic says, “But they’re also significant here, because Floridians love to recreate on reefs.”

“Scientifically, it’s very complex and difficult to calculate the true value of ecosystems in monetary terms,” Silverstein adds, “but at the end, the output of a simple numerical comparison can provide significant support for a balanced approach for managers and decision makers.”

Both women cite precedents for past studies in South Florida. “There was one by Grace Johns and several collaborators in 2000. They are proposing to redo that one, but it’s really intensive. So not only would it be big, but it’s really expensive,” Lustic says. “It’s unfortunate even for us writing grant reports and making the proposition to lay people because we cite the previous study, and it doesn’t sound relevant anymore because it is 15 years old.” That’s why the Nature Conservancy is looking for free ways to update that data.

A green sea turtle glides over a wasteland of dead coral near Kanton Island in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area. Since 2006, the Islands have been home to the largest Marine Protected Area on the globe.

“We’re looking for a quicker way to track coral reefs contributions—just from data you can get online—to at least give us the basic value from year to year,” Lustic says. “The only cost is the time of whoever’s compiling the information and writing it up.”

To illustrate just how telling economic valuation data can be, Silverstein refers to the economic study of Miami’s Biscayne Bay from 2005. “[Biscayne Bay] directly supports over 137,600 jobs, and generates billions of dollars in economic output and hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue annually.”

In addition to the revenue, reef habitat acts to proactively defray—if not altogether avert—the cost of damage in coastal communities. The unique capacity of reefs to stave off damage has saved shoreline residents inestimable costs in potential damage from extreme coastal weather.

“What we’re all actively learning more about is how much protection from storms our reefs provide,” Lustic says. “So pretty recently, we developed a website with an online app to go with it to help people visualize the impact.” Although and its Coastal Defense application is the resource that Lustic is most familiar with, she says that there is a growing number of apps devoted to helping the public understand just how much protection their intact reefs and other coastal habitats provide.

“They allow you to see how different coastal systems affect wave strength,” Lustic says. “And it’s user-friendly enough that somebody who isn’t a scientist or an engineer can use it and know the questions to ask. We hope that it will get individual homeowners interested in talking to engineers about pursuing natural options instead of putting in seawalls.”

Fairy basslet fish dart among blooms of lettuce coral near the Phoenix Islands in 2004 (left). In the same reef system today (right image), coral die-off is evident but still much less ubiquitous than in Atlantic-Caribbean reefs.

Invoking hope

Nedimyer and Foord are in the business of laying the ground-level foundations to support the economic contention. Both aver that animating the value of Florida’s reef with a dollar value is a critical step, but insist on the power of grassroots engagement.

When Recovery Act funds opened to proposals in 2009, Nedimyer already had his own coral nursery and was actively involved in a partnership researching staghorn coral—the building block of reef habitat. Even as established marine biologists, however, Nedimyer and his coral restoration partners were unlikely picks for large federal funding. “We didn’t have the expertise or experience to apply for and manage one of these grants, but TNC did,” Nedimyer says. “So between our permitted projects, the remnants of the experimental nurseries, and the expertise of TNC, we were able to submit a competitive grant and get it funded.”

The coalition that formed between Nedimyer’s coral restoration partners and The Nature Conservancy bred the Acropora Restoration Project. Although funding for that particular project ran out in 2012, Nedimyer and many of the partners continue what they started as much as they can without substantial financial backing.

Both Foord and Nedimyer strive to dismantle the public notion that coral habitat is already a lost cause. “The ivory tower of academia presents [coral] as potentially doomed organisms that only a scientist could begin to understand,” Foord says, “And who really wants to meet and fall in love with a terminally sick patient? It is easier to skip the heartbreak.”

Mantles of a giant clam protrude from coral in the Kingman Reef. As the lynchpin of marine interdependence, reefs support more species per unit area than any other marine environment.

In reality, according to Foord, “We aren’t necessarily dealing with a terminally ill patient. Chronically ill—yes. But there is still hope for future generations of both corals and humans.” Nedimyer and his partners make a similar appeal in advancing the groundwork of the Acropora Restoration. “I think we have instilled the idea that there just might be some hope,” Nedimyer says, “And that there are some things we can do to buy some time and maybe preserve some reefs for generations to come.”

Empathy and the Advent of Coral Morphologic

As a champion for the vantage point of empathy, Coral Morphologic goes a step further with their rhetorical approach in suggesting we and coral share a fate. “Corals and humans are dealing with the same issues of long-term global survival in a fast changing world,” Foord says. “[Because] we believe that the most potent emotion that a person can have to change human perspective is empathy,” Foord explains, “Coral Morphologic is attempting to create a 21st century mythology and iconography of the coral that generates greater human empathy, curiosity, and perspective on our planet.”

Coastal Florida is home to the largest reef tract in the continental United States, extending as far north as Palm Beach and arcing toward Dry Tortugas National Park west of the Lower Florida Keys. Credit: The Nature Conservancy

Before time-lapsed videography scored with original music became co-founders’ Foord and Jared McKay’s lynchpin, Coral Morphologic was an eBay venture growing coral in homemade aquariums out of a spare room in their house. The duo was able to upgrade to a new warehouse location in time to be featured on the 2010 Weird Miami Bus Tour. It was there that Alberto Ibargüen, president and CEO of IS member, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, showed up unplanned and unannounced. On the spot, Ibargüen offered to fund Coral Morphologic to create large building projections of coral for Miami’s 2010 Art Basel.

Today, with a handle in every conceivable social media platform, Coral Morphologic is probably the most visible of coral advocacy enterprises. In its first national media surge, Coral Morphologic appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Reuters, and NPR’s All Things Considered—all in the span of a single month beginning in June 2014. Additionally, they were called back for NPR’s Science Friday in September 2014, and their Miami Coral Rescue Mission was the subject of a two-part Creators Project documentary, Coral City.

Nedimyer comments on the role of Coral Morphologic in raising underwater awareness. “Colin’s [community] is full of passionate people who can reach an audience that the scientific community will never reach,” Nedimyer says. “I’m glad there are people like Colin who are fusing art, electronic media, and conservation together.”

Translating interdependence into sustainability

Partnerships have become a staple in South Florida’s response to reef depletion. We learned from Foord earlier that organisms in peril have better funding prospects. Perhaps that same doom also foreshadows the kind of diverse community that can crop up around the archetypal canary in a coal mine. Such seems to be so in South Florida, where the standard of interdependence will remain critical in routing coral conservation toward engagement and sustainability.

“We’ve always been funded through grants, but that’s not really enough,” Lustic explains. “And that’s not necessarily sustainable, because it always hinges on the availability of public grant money, and our ability to raise the required private match money. So some of our other partners have been exploring different funding arrangements.”

In his work at the Coral Restoration Foundation, Nedimyer believes solidarity is key to the upkeep of the coral nurseries he plants around the world. “Successful programs need to have strong local ownership and buy-in,” Nedimyer says. “But they need experienced organizations to help them develop a viable nursery and restoration program, and they need someone to help them develop a sustainable business model to support a long-term program.”

On the topic of funding, Nedimyer and Foord are in accord. “Ultimately,” Foord says, “it is the decisions of those most dependent on the reef itself that have the largest influence over the health of the ecosystem.” Similarly, Nedimyer insists, “Throwing money at the problem is not going to solve it, but money is needed to support startup programs that have strong community support and participation.”

A diver shines a light along marine life and healthy coral growth in the southern Line Islands.


Bob Wicklund, author of Eyes in the Sea, was one of eight marine experts who brought coral deterioration before the U.S. Senate for the first time in 1987. Wicklund echoes Ken Nedimyer and Colin Foord’s cry for public engagement in conserving reef habitat, but thinks it is incumbent upon the federal government to restore a standard of marine program funding (which has exceeded $30 million in the past). Unlike private entities, the government has the power to implement what Wicklund thinks is the most effective protective measure in the marine recovery arsenal. “The strong international interest to create Marine Protected Areas (MPA) is perhaps the most positive step we have taken on a global scale,” Wicklund suggests.

In his professional tenure, Wicklund co-founded, built, and directed the Hydro-Lab Undersea Research Program and later the Caribbean Marine Research Center—both in the Bahamas and funded primarily by the NOAA. More recently, Wicklund was the director of the Southeast and Gulf Undersea Research Center at University of North Carolina-Wilmington, where he conducted his own research while supporting hundreds of other coral reef scientists and projects. Wicklund is also a lifelong diver and lover of marine habitat, and has been discouraged by the magnitude of coral die-off just in his lifetime. “In recent years, I have been diving the shallow reefs off St. Croix, Virgin Islands,” Wicklund says. “The last dive I counted one barracuda, no grouper [fish], and just a handful of medium-sized fish of various species. The corals were in bad shape. I can’t help but compare dives I made here maybe 40-50 years ago, when I swam through schools and schools of fish, played tug of war with a grouper over a peanut butter sandwich in a plastic bag, and watched a Damselfish signal me to get lost.”


Jacqueline Brennan is the associate for social media and web at Independent Sector.

Types: Blog
Global Topics: Arts, Culture, and Humanities, Environment, IS Member, ISQ