The Florida Reef Tract

June 2019

By Lisa Gregg, Jennifer Moore, and Jennifer Koss 

Our Corals in Crisis                                    

Coral reef ecosystems are found all over the world’s tropical oceans and are sentinel communities reflecting the health status of the marine environment. Like their land-based counterparts, the rainforests, reefs are highly biodiverse, supporting nearly 25 percent of life in the ocean1, and function as recyclers—sequestering nutrients from the environment and making them available to the animals and plants within the reef2.

Coral reefs provide important services that enhance coastal protection, fisheries, medical research, and tourism. In terms of coastal resilience, reefs are literally the first line of defense.  Healthy, resilient coral reefs safeguard against extreme weather, shoreline erosion, and coastal flooding.  

They also provide essential fisheries habitat. Corals build the reef structures and habitat essential for fish to breed and grow.  Ultimately, reefs help ensure human food security through commercial and recreational fishing opportunities. Reefs are also the new frontier for biomedical research. Drugs developed from reef organisms are already on the market to combat cancer, pain, and inflammation. If that weren’t enough, coral reefs are the main economic driver in coastal communities offering aesthetic and recreational opportunities for snorkeling, scuba diving, recreational fishing, and a whole lot more.

In fact, studies in communities like Martin and Monroe Counties in Florida show that the economy is significantly linked to the local coral reefs. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports coral reef related industries in southeast Florida annually provide over 71,000 jobs and $8.5 billion in sales and income. On a larger scale, the annual global economic value of coral reefs is estimated between 30–375 billionUSD34 and 9.9 trillionUSD5.

But as much as coral reefs provide for our planet and our lives, they are in decline. The Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network 2004 report, Status of Coral Reefs of the World, notes that, “20% of the world’s coral reefs have been effectively destroyed and show no immediate prospects of recovery,” and, “predicts that 24% of the world’s reefs are under imminent risk of collapse through human pressures; and a further 26% are under a longer-term threat of collapse.” 6 The Network’s 2014 report, Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012, notes, “[Caribbean] coral cover has reportedly declined by more than 80% since the 1970s…” and “The severity of the situation has raised serious questions about the future of Caribbean reefs and indeed reefs worldwide.”7 The coral reefs in our own backyard, along Florida’s coast, are no exception to the current global coral reef trend. In fact, the reefs that compose the largest barrier reef in the continental U.S., a reef community that extends from Port St. Lucie, 130 miles north of Miami, Fla., to Key West, known as the Florida Reef Tract, is in crisis.

The Florida Reef Tract is currently experiencing a multi-year, disease-related mortality event that has resulted in massive die-offs in multiple coral species. As many as 25 coral species, including both Endangered Species Act-listed and primary reef-building species, have displayed tissue loss lesions that often result in whole colony mortality.

“The impact of this disease spread is, in a word, devastating.  SCUBA divers describe what they see on the reef as looking like the barren surface of the moon, swimming over a war-torn city, or witnessing the impact of an IED blast,” said Jennifer Koss, director of NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Program (CRCP).  “These corals were already experiencing more than their fair share of threats and to see this kind of devastation is heartbreaking.”

The disease has suitably been called, “stony-coral tissue loss disease.” First observed offshore of southeast Florida in late 2014, the disease has since spread to the northernmost extent of the Florida Reef Tract and south into the Lower Florida Keys. The best available information indicates that the disease front is currently located around Key West, but continuing to spread southwest through the Florida Keys.  The disease has spread over 150 km in four years, and the rate of progression has been exponential. The Florida Reef Tract has seen widespread disease outbreaks before—but rarely more than two species at a time have been affected, resulting in only partial mortality. Within this current stony-coral tissue loss disease, some species experience up to 100 percent mortality at individual reef sites. This has become one of the most widespread and lethal coral disease outbreaks in world.

In July 2018, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS) and the NOAA CRCP hosted a coral disease workshop to develop a response plan for the ongoing coral disease outbreak in Florida, with a focus on identifying interventions that could help slow the continued spread of disease and save priority corals. The outcome of this workshop was the creation of a multi-disciplinary team of experts representing over 40 federal, state, academic, private sector, and non-profit partners engaged in implementing a multi-pronged response to control and hopefully eliminate the disease.

One of the primary intervention activities proposed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) at the workshop and now underway, was the rescue or removal of healthy corals ahead of the disease boundary and placement of those corals in land-based aquaria to prevent them from becoming infected, to preserve genetic diversity, and to serve as source propagation stock for future restoration activities when appropriate.

“The urgency of coral rescue had been identified by FWC’s long-term coral monitoring programs and FWC had already been developing a coral genetic management plan for restoration activities, both of which laid the ground work for the coral rescue project,” shares Lisa Gregg, FWC programs and policy coordinator.  To facilitate the action plan established at the workshop, a multi-agency, multi-disciplinary team led by the FWC and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) was assembled to develop and execute this activity. This team, known as the, Florida Coral Rescue Team, began the monumental task of developing plans to collect and care for 22 species of coral in preparation for restoration of the Florida Reef Tract in the future.

Early on, the Florida Coral Rescue Team acknowledged that one of the most significant parts of the rescue plan was to provide care for the nearly 5,000 corals to be collected over the duration of the plan’s effort.

“This effort is unprecedented and the scale is absolutely enormous. We need all hands on deck to help us save and care for these important corals,” said Jennifer Moore, NOAA protected coral program manager.

It was also apparent to the Coral Rescue Team that the Association of Zoos and Aquariums was the only entity that had the suite of expertise, resources, and professionalism to take on this significant conservation challenge. So in August 2018, the Coral Rescue Team solicited AZA’s assistance with the Florida Coral Rescue Plan, resulting in a new public-private partnership to implement this bold, comprehensive, science-based plan for the conservation of Florida’s corals.

The AZA-Florida Reef Tract Rescue Project (AZA-FRTRP) was established in November 2018 as a result of that engagement, and will facilitate an AZA wide response to the coral reef crisis in our own backyard

Lisa Gregg is the programs and policy coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Jennifer Moore is the protected coral program manager at NOAA.

Jennifer Koss is the director of NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program.




3              Cesar, H.J.S.; Burke, L.; Pet-Soede, L. (2003). The Economics of Worldwide Coral Reef Degradation. The Netherlands: Cesar Environmental Economics Consulting. p. 4.

4              Robert; Ralph d'Arge; Rudolf de Groot; Stephen Farber; Monica Grasso; Bruce Hannon; Karin Limburg; Shahid Naeem; Robert V. O'Neill; Jose Paruelo; Robert G. Raskin; Paul Sutton; Marjan van den Belt (15 May 1997). "The value of the world's ecosystem services and natural capital". Nature. 387 (6630): 253–260.

5              Costanza, Robert; de Groot, Rudolph; Sutton, Paul (2014). "Changes in the global value of ecosystem services". Global Environmental Change. 26 (1): 152-158.

6          Wilkinson, Clive. (2004). Status of Coral Reefs of the World: 2004.

7           Jackson JBC, Donovan MK, Cramer KL, Lam VV (editors). (2014)  Status and Trends of  Caribbean  Coral Reefs: 1970-2012. Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland.



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