Forging a Better Future For Coral Reefs

Forging a Better Future For Coral Reefs

Reef aquariums have come a long way in a very short amount of time. Whether it’s the technology behind them or the plethora of information continuing to enter the hobby. We all want to create an aquarium that can give viewers a glimpse into what a thriving natural coral reef looks like. While general interest in keeping a reef aquarium has continued to grow, the natural reefs across the world have struggled with rising ocean temperatures, acidification, and pollution. Luckily, we have countless nonprofits who are shedding light, spurring change, and creating innovative solutions to aid in the support of coral reefs. Unfortunately, it will take much more than the efforts of these organizations to make sure there is a bright future for corals reefs, it will come down to education, making mindful decisions, and our support of these programs that put the protection of our oceans on a pedestal.

Within this article we want to shed some light on just a few of the companies who are dedicating their time, effort, and funding to ensure a brighter future for coral reefs around the world. While these highlighted nonprofits are doing an incredible job pushing for change, there are a multitude of others who are also deserving of your attention and support. When we walk into a public aquarium or a local reef shop, it is easy to forget that these vibrantly colored and ever-evolving species once came out of the natural reefs that are in need of our help. If we want to continue to display a piece of a live reef in our own home, it is crucial to protect the source of our inspiration. Even thousands of miles away from where they initially came from, coral continues to adapt to change. Hopefully, as a society that values the future of these ecosystems, we can too.       

Barrier Reef Preservation in Our Own Backyard:

Courtesy of Reef Relief
Courtesy of Reef Relief

Reef Relief is a nonprofit organization operating out of Key West Florida whose focus is on education pertaining to the importance of coral reefs. In doing so, they increase public awareness and foster support for the protection, conservation, and restoration of their local barrier reef. Founded in 1987 by Craig and Deevon Quirolo, Reef Relief has been a strong part of the Key West community for over thirty years. What started as a way to educate boaters about avoiding damaging local reefs has snowballed into a powerful, inspired, and educated community who continue to make a drastic difference in the only barrier reef in the continental United States. Whether it’s through the removal of thousands of pounds of ocean trash, marking storm drains to prevent potential dumping, encouraging hundreds of local businesses to not use plastic straws, or getting thousands of children inspired at Coral Camp, Marine Depot is honored to present Reef Relief as a true coral reef preservation trailblazer. 

I was lucky enough to conduct an email interview with Dora DeMaria who is the Education Manager at Reef Relief. Dora was incredibly generous with her time and gave us some great insight into the programs that make up Reef Relief along with how reefers like you and me can get involved. I was able to get more details about the actions Reef Relief is currently taking and our discussion is detailed below. 

What are some projects that Reef Relief is currently working on?
Image courtesy of Reef Relief
Image courtesy of Reef Relief
Image courtesy of Reef Relief
Image courtesy of Reef Relief
Image courtesy of Reef Relief

Reef Relief is working on a lot of different projects! Here is a break down of our main ones:

Discover Coral Reefs School Program: This program encompasses our various interactions with school aged students. Last school year, pre COVID-19, we visited over 6,000 students in South Florida to teach about marine science topics. Once quarantine began, we converted to a free online platform via Facebook Live and reached over 100,000 students with lessons three days a week. Our newest component of the DCRSP is our Virtual Classroom, a subscription based curriculum designed to supplement a student’s regular science learning. We have created 8 units of different topics. Each unit will have over 20 different videos and worksheets, interviews with scientists, and activities. 

Marine Debris Removal Project: We coordinate and host various marine debris cleanups around the Florida Keys. Since hurricane Irma we have collected over 100,000 lbs of marine debris. 

Storm Drain Stenciling Program: Reef Relief is responsible for marking storm drains throughout the City of Key West with messages like “No Dumping, Drains to Ocean”.

Responsible Sunscreen Campaign: Reef Relief successfully lobbied the City of Key West in January 2019 to create a city wide ordinance restricting the sale of sunscreens containing the toxic chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate. Since then, the state of Florida has established a preemptive bill, stating that municipalities cannot implement ordinances restricting sun care products. Due to this we have been working with individual businesses and creating educational campaigns to promote the sale of healthier sunscreens.

Skip the Straw Campaign: We have successfully added over 100 businesses in the Florida Keys to our skip the straw campaign. This campaign has been so well received that the City of Key West passed an ordinance preventing the use of plastic straws. 

— Dora DeMaria

Discover Coral Reefs School Program: This program encompasses our various interactions with school aged students. Last school year, pre COVID-19, we visited over 6,000 students in South Florida to teach about marine science topics. Once quarantine began, we converted to a free online platform via Facebook Live and reached over 100,000 students with lessons three days a week. Our newest component of the DCRSP is our Virtual Classroom, a subscription based curriculum designed to supplement a student’s regular science learning. We have created 8 units of different topics. Each unit will have over 20 different videos and worksheets, interviews with scientists, and activities. 

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Responsible Sunscreen Campaign: Reef Relief successfully lobbied the City of Key West in January 2019 to create a city wide ordinance restricting the sale of sunscreens containing the toxic chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate. Since then, the state of Florida has established a preemptive bill, stating that municipalities cannot implement ordinances restricting sun care products. Due to this we have been working with individual businesses and creating educational campaigns to promote the sale of healthier sunscreens.

Skip the Straw Campaign: We have successfully added over 100 businesses in the Florida Keys to our skip the straw campaign. This campaign has been so well received that the City of Key West passed an ordinance preventing the use of plastic straws. 

— Dora DeMaria

What are some challenges in educating the public? And, what improvements have you seen within your community?

There are always challenges with educating the public. The biggest issue is having to re-teach someone’s issue. For example, all our lives we are told to wear sunscreen, and a lot of it. Now we are saying to try alternative coverage like shirts, and use different sunscreens that are free of those chemicals. Asking someone to make a change in their life can prove to be difficult, most people are comfortable and are nervous of change. Finding the right balance of scientific facts and sympathy is important. I personally love my job as Education Manager since I get to work more with children. Children are sponges and soak up every bit of information you give them. They also want to make a change in their community and help, you start to see the passion develop.  

 Like I said in the first question, we’ve been able to implement ordinances and initiatives to  promote better, eco-conscious thinking.  We are also seeing a new generation starting to become more vocal. Whether it’s the community project they host, the science project they create, or the major they choose to study, we are seeing a whole new generation become much more ocean minded and that is so incredibly rewarding. 

— Dora DeMaria

What makes the reefs that surround the Florida Keys unique?
Image courtesy of Reef Relief

The coral reefs that surround the Florida Keys are unique because they are the only living barrier reef in the continental United States. Beyond that it is the third largest barrier reef in the world. Coral reefs as an ecosystem are home to 25% of all marine life, so it’s safe to say that the coral reefs here are key to protect biodiversity. Additionally, our coral reef supports the economy more than anything else down here. We have eco tourism,  commercial fishing, and even structural protection. Coral reefs have the capability to absorb 97% of a waves total energy, making it incredibly important in our defense against storms.  

— Dora DeMaria

 Could you tell me about what the Coral Camp program entails along with some of the takeaways that Reef Relief has gotten from offering it? 

Coral Camp for Kids are week long programs offered in spring break and in the summer time for kids aged 6-12. They receive five days of marine science education and four days of snorkeling on the reef, in the sponge gardens, and in the seagrass beds. At the beginning of the week and end of the week campers take a test where they will compare to see how much they have grown. Once children go through this program you see a new interest in marine science, especially the younger ones who go on to continue marine science studies. In the younger ones, you see their snorkeling skills grow and see their interest start to develop. It is incredibly rewarding.

— Dora DeMaria

How can we stay up to date on all of your events, projects, and opportunities for supporting Reef Relief?
Reef Relief
Reef Relief

The easiest way to stay up to date with us is following us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. We are constantly posting updates, and general marine science information! You can also visit our website to sign up for our virtual newsletter. Finally, you can also visit our website to become an official member of Reef Relief. That means that you will receive current information, as well as the biannual membership letter, and even a membership sticker! 

— Dora DeMaria

The Wild Reef Aquascapers: 

Courtesy of The Reef Ball Foundation
Courtesy of The Reef Ball Foundation

The Reef Ball Foundation is a nonprofit organization founded in 1997 by Todd Barber and Kathy Kirbo with the main goal of rehabilitating coral reefs. The Reef Ball Foundation began with the creation of their patented “Reef Ball” technology that simulates natural structure within a reef to allow for expansion of a coral reef ecosystem. Over time, the reef balls will become a natural part of the ecosystem filled with coral and fish species. The Reef Ball Foundation has seen incredible success in bringing new life to many struggling reefs across the world. With over 600,000 reef balls deployed in 62 plus countries, this organization has made an incredible impact in adding needed biomass to hundreds of reefs. While the deployment of Reef Balls is the organization’s main focus, they are also educating everyday people on how the choices they make can influence the future of reef ecosystems. For all of the work the Reef Ball Foundation has done to support the future of our worlds reefs, we are honored to be able to feature them in this article. 

I was privileged to connect with Katherine Kirbo who is the Executive Director for the Reef Ball Foundation. Katherine was kind enough to give us a look at the projects that the organization is currently working on along with some of the incredible accomplishments that the foundation has already achieved. We also discuss how reefers like you and me can get involved and stay up to date on the actions of the Reef Ball Foundation. You can see our full discussion below. 

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Could you please describe some of the projects the Reef Ball Foundation is currently working on?  
Image courtesy of the Reef Ball Foundation
Image courtesy of the Reef Ball Foundation
Image courtesy of the Reef Ball Foundation
Image courtesy of the Reef Ball Foundation
Image courtesy of the Reef Ball Foundation
Image courtesy of the Reef Ball Foundation

Here’s a few of our current projects:

  1. We have a large scale long term project in Sarawak, Malaysia. The goals of this project are coral restoration, fishing habitat restoration, sea turtle restoration and also include some erosion control projects. You can read more about it here.

2. Coral Reef Restoration project in the Philippines.

3. A freshwater Reef Ball project in Kentucky.

4.  A freshwater project in Tennessee.

5. We recently did an erosion control project-living shoreline with the University of Florida-Nature Coast Biological Station

6. We have an ongoing project with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation with oyster restoration in Virginia and Maryland.

7. We have a new partnership that started in the spring with No Shoes Reefs and that has been exciting and especially meaningful during the pandemic. you can read about the partnership here

8.  A Stratford Point Project in Connecticut which used Reef Balls for its living shoreline and it just recently won an award. 

 –Katherine Kirbo

How long does it usually take to transform a new reef ball into a fully converted piece of the reef?   

Fish will migrate onto the reef balls as soon as they are placed. The rate of growth greatly depends on water conditions of the local environment. We see growth on these reefs in as little as a few weeks. Water with more nutrients will have a faster rate of growth, clearer waters will have a slower growth rate.  As these reef balls mature they become permanent additions to the marine environment, continuing to develop and support marine life forever becoming part of the reef ecosystem.

–Katherine Kirbo

What are some of the Reef Ball Foundation’s greatest accomplishments?
Image courtesy of the Reef Ball Foundation

Along with the Impact page on our website, here is a great video of our accomplishments. 

The Reef Ball Foundation has placed Reef Balls™ in 62+ countries and our projects have a global reach of 70+ countries. We have conducted over 6,000 projects and deployed over 600,000 Reef Balls. Additionally, 54 billion kilograms of biomass will be added to the Earth’s oceans in the next 500 years as a result of Reef Ball efforts. We have also won some national and international awards.

 –Katherine Kirbo

What is something you would tell an aquarium hobbyist who may find coral visually appealing but may not know the challenges they face in the wild? 

Coral reefs are under great pressure and threatened all over the globe and we must work to decrease the human impacts we cause and work to protect them. Coral reefs are experiencing higher ocean temperatures and acidity than ever before in the last 400,000 years.  Over 60% of the world’s coral reefs are directly threatened by a number of local anthropogenic stressors including: overfishing and destructive fishing, land-based and marine-based pollution, coastal development, tourism and recreational impacts. Each of us can make a difference by the decisions we make everyday and help raise awareness. Not to mention our oceans provide over half of the world’s oxygen.  It’s important!   

 –Katherine Kirbo 

Where does the future of the Reef Ball Foundation lie and where can we keep up to date about the organization’s activity?   
Image courtesy of the Reef Ball Foundation

The Reef Ball Foundation plans to continue expanding our work with new partners around the world and always working to improve our technology. We started doing coral reef restoration, but expanded to include a variety of marine species. These include restoration-fisheries, oysters, mangroves and erosion control projects-beach restoration, living shorelines and living seawalls. We hope to continue with innovative and exciting projects in the future.  Also, education and raising public awareness to the importance of our oceans will always be part of our mission.

–Katherine Kirbo 

The Reef Guardians Down Under:

Courtesy of The Great Barrier Reef Legacy
Courtesy of The Great Barrier Reef Legacy

There is no ocean environment more iconic than the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland, Australia. With all of the attention this reef garners, it has become a hotbed for reef education, conservation, and preservation. At the very center of this movement is the Great Barrier Reef Legacy, a nonprofit organization who prioritizes scientific discovery, education, and public engagement. Through years of experience and dedication to this environment, the Great Barrier Reef Legacy has continued to make an enormous impact in educating individuals on the importance of this ecosystem. They have also taken steps towards fostering a brighter future for the Great Barrier Reef. Whether it’s contributing to a living coral “Biobank”, bringing together communities to restore and preserve the G.B.R., or conducting marine research on how best to support these diverse ecosystems, this organization is making major strides.  

Through our research, we were able to connect with Dr. Dean Miller who is the Managing Director for the Great Barrier Reef Legacy. We were able to ask questions to learn more about the projects they are currently working on. Additionally, we were able to enquire on what the future holds for both the organization and the Great Barrier Reef. We are thrilled to feature the Great Barrier Reef Legacy and appreciate all they are doing to make sure the future of our world’s reefs are valued and protected. You can see our full discussion with Dr. Miller below. 

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What are some of the projects that the Great Barrier Reef Legacy is currently focused on?

 Our main project is the Living Coral Biobank as the urgent need for this is very clear. With every coral bleaching event, we are losing the most vulnerable corals and coral reefs. With three mass bleaching events in just five years, and more than 50 per cent of corals gone in the last few decades, we don’t have a moment to lose.

–Dr. Dean Miller

What role does education play in the future of coral reef conservation?
Image courtesy of the Great Barrier Reef Legacy

Everything! Educating a global population about the need to preserve and conserve what is left of the world’s coral reefs is paramount. Coral reefs are critical to 25% of the oceans marine life, and also over 1 billion people worldwide rely on coral reefs every day for their survival. Unless we act as a global community to address this now global problem we will continue to lose the most vulnerable corals and coral reefs through a range of impacts. The solution all starts with education. 

–Dr. Dean Miller

Just how essential is the Great Barrier Reef to Australia and how has your organization seen it change over time?

The Great Barrier Reef is important to Australia as the world’s largest living structure and, therefore, is a major tourism drawcard for both national and international visitors. It contributes billions of dollars each year to our economy but much more than that we’re at the custodians of this incredible natural wonder. It is our responsibility to ensure for its future health and survival. In the last 20 years that I have been diving the Great Barrier Reef I have seen great changes take place, most of them in the last five years when the major bleaching events have occurred. We simply cannot sit back and hope everything will be ok, we must act now to do everything we can to address climate change and reduce the effects of impacts on reefs locally.

–Dr. Dean Miller

Could you tell us about the living coral Biobank and the progress that has been made in collecting hard coral species?
Image Courtesy of the Great Barrier Reef Legacy

We have 35 species or just over 8% of Great Barrier Reef species represented in just over 280 fragments and all microchipped and logged in the Living Coral Biobank. These are safe and sound at our partners’ facility Cairns Marine where they are being cared for with the highest level of expertise, skill and equipment.

See here for updates 🙂

–Dr. Dean Miller

How can we remain up to date on all of your progress, opportunities, and ways to support?  
Great Barrier Reef Legacy
Great Barrier Reef Legacy

You can follow us on Facebook and you can also get involved. For those that just want to support us, you can simply donate or adopt a fragment. For those with marine tanks at home or the office, if you meet a set of prerequisite conditions you can register to become a Living Coral Biobank participant and have your own fragments. You can also sponsor a holding tank or a collecting expedition. 

With no government support for this project we need all the help we can get and I know that the private aquarium sector has the most important role to play as we are able to backup and house the world’s corals in these systems as we scale up the project. To me, that is the most exciting part of what we are trying to do, and while we are at it, we will create the largest living network of corals and the largest citizen science program on the planet!

–Dr. Dean Miller

Final Thoughts:

We wanted to take the time to thank our featured organizations who have blown us away with their dedication to the betterment of our ocean’s reefs. Each of them have taken a unique path in preservation, conservation and education. However, the culmination of their efforts are what truly brings about change. Sometimes we can get lost in our own aquariums and forget that coral is not a novelty, or a living room showpiece, it is a part of an ecosystem that has thrived for millions of years. We encourage our customers to check out each of these incredible operations and lend a helping hand if you can. In a world that has been flipped upside down in a pandemic, we are thoroughly amazed at the continued progress that each of these teams have made towards achieving their goals.      

By now it is apparent that there are some incredible organizations taking action on coral reef preservation. Whether it’s the creation of a man made piece of the reef or inspiring new generations to respect and honor coral reef environments, with these bold organizations at the helm, there is a much brighter future. That being said, it will take more than the actions of these organizations to make sure these phenomena last for centuries to come. For hundreds of years we have relied on the world’s reefs for food, tourism, and shoreline protection. It is time that we recognize this resource as an essential entity for the future of our planet and mankind. 

We live in a time in history where the daily decisions we make can impact the future of these natural wonders we all have come to admire. So check your sunscreen label, ditch your plastic straws, and wade out to a different world beneath the surface.

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