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United Way Blog

Coral Reef Restoration in the Florida Keys

Every Tuesday before Morgan leaves for school, she grabs her lunch bag, water bottle, and snorkel gear. Because Tuesdays are field lab days, she'll spend most of her day on, near, or under the ocean. Her school that understands that most students' futures will depend on the health of their marine environment. Morgan's snorkeling is strengthening her understanding of the environmental-economic link, and her awareness of the value of Florida's Keys. 

In the Florida Keys, a tourism-based economy means that some 60% of residents depend on the marine environment for their livelihood. That's why United Way of Collier and the Keys is driving innovative initiatives focused on building up this community's health, education, and financial stability -- including joining coral reef restoration efforts.

Since the 1970s, coral reefs have been dying at an unprecedented rate, according to the NASA Earth Observatory. With the environmental decline of native coral, coastal communities face an increasing risk to their economy and decreasing protection during hurricanes. For the Florida Keys, these risks impact  our community’s future. 

There's no dispute: unhealthy, depleted reefs will damage this community’s livelihood down the road. In response, United Way is taking a holistic approach to the Keys' economic and environmental sustainability. We're pioneering a path to economic sustainability with restoration, by incorporating educational benefits, global partnership prospects, and the potential for “voluntourism” in a unique approach to revitalizing the Florida Keys. Learn more about our work on “Revitalizing the Florida Keys through Reef Restoration and Beyond.” 

With this collaborative work, United Way is a spark for similar projects in other communities across the world -- and with other local United Ways -- to help cultivate deeper understanding of how the environment can affect quality of life and financial stability.

The Florida Keys are a chain of islands stretching 120 miles off the southern tip of Florida. They're surrounded by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS), which helps protect local marine resources and their use. The reefs provide natural barriers from hurricanes and other storms, valued at over $200 million. Healthy reefs yield harvests of fish and other ocean catches, a crucial food and income source for recreational and commercial fishing. Of course, the natural beauty of healthy reefs fuels tourism.

To address the devastation of the Key’s corals, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and partners have devised a 20-year plan called Mission: Iconic Reefs, a comprehensive approach to restore corals at seven ecologically and culturally significant reef sites in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The intent is to restore live coral coverage on the only barrier reef in North America, from the current 2% to an ecologically sustainable 25%.

As a catalyst to Mission: Iconic Reefs, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) granted a $3.5 million gift to the United Way of Collier and the Keys to support coral restoration and education efforts. The donation is part of a larger $10 million pledge to Florida to assist in relief and recovery efforts from Hurricane Irma. In collaboration with NOAA, United Way will use part of the gift to support nonprofit reef restoration organizations’ innovation and invention techniques and local marine science education efforts.

The risks to the Florida Keys’ economy and infrastructure as a result of the decline in coral and related sea life is real -- and becoming more serious. Interventions like this are an attempt at nimble yet massive efforts to shift this devastating trajectory.

Through coral outplanting (a method taking “baby” corals grown in a nearby “nursery” and permanently attaching them to bare spots on the reef), education, youth engagement, and economic work, the restoration of coral reefs in the Keys can transform communities. To foster opportunities for local, state, or national reef restoration organizations (or “practitioners”) to employ their insight and research into the outplanting of coral, United Way will invest $2.8 million of the $3.5 million UAE donation in the form of match funding.

United Way has already funded practitioners selected for their creative approach, visionary thinking and organizational approach. Since United Way is people-centered, we recognize that the community must have a voice in deciding which organizations are most compatible with the needs of the Florida Keys,  and we've built that into the decision-making process.

We also want to ensure the next generation of community leaders, innovators, and entrepreneurs are invested in the reef restoration work — even if indirectly, through education and youth engagement:

  • United Way will invest $155,000 towards scholarships to fund Florida Keys students who intend to study subjects related to marine science at Florida institutions for higher learning. And $180,000 dollars of the UAE’s donation will be granted by United Way to schools and marine science educational facilities in the Florida Keys to assist in teachers’ efforts to promote and further expand marine science.
  • Because the devastation of the coral reefs is a pervasive issue worldwide, United Way will also invest $150,000 to facilitate global partnerships with the intent to share knowledge of coral restoration, foster conversation and dialogue, and ensure amplification of the issue with the greater environmental community.

The Florida Keys’ communities are committed to working together toward reef restoration, but there is always the potential to increase outreach. The need for volunteer-driven activities is strong; existing reef restoration practitioners cannot do it alone. To tackle this effort at a scale needed to reverse the current decline, restoration practitioners need to drastically increase their efficiency using local volunteers and ‘voluntourism’ opportunities.

We know United Way's work on this project is a long-term undertaking. And our commitments in staff, knowledge, funding and capacity are designed for long-term outcomes. It's a major investment that we believe will change the future of our community.

It's also required us to think holistically, and to understand the intersectionality of the marine environment's components. Coral reefs are related to the ocean on a global scale. Iinland pollution is related to coastal environmental decline. Sea grasses are related to water quality. These are just some of the lessons that could be replicated in other communities dependent on the environment.

Through “Revitalizing the Florida Keys through Reef Restoration and Beyond,” United Way is catalyzing restoration efforts of the only remaining barrier reef  in North America, supporting its ongoing viability and the vibrant Florida Keys community that depends on it. We hope it will help transform Morgan's future and that of her community, because a healthy reef is the backbone of the Florida Keys. 

Want to learn more? Take a 'deep dive' into how United Way is pioneering a path to economic sustainability through this case study and this archived webinar.  

Image used in blog is used courtesy of Coral Restoration Foundation



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