Florida Reef Resilience Program
The Nature Conservancy (TNC), along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, initiated the Florida Reef Resilience Program (FRRP) in 2004 to study the health of the Florida Reef Tract from the Dry Tortugas to Port St. Lucie. The FRRP seeks to determine what makes some corals more resistant than others to climate change impacts, what factors contribute to areas of high or low resistance, and why certain areas are more resilient than others. The FRRP seeks to increase the understanding of reef health in order to guide management actions that will improve the resilience of the Florida Reef tract to climate change impacts and enhance the reef-user industry.
The FRRP was designed to study the resilience of the Florida Reef Tract from the Dry Tortugas in the Gulf of Mexico to Port St. Lucie on the Atlantic coast. Parts of the Florida Reef Tract experienced severe bleaching events in 1983, 1987, 1990, 1997, 1998, and 2005, and a massive sea urchin die-off in 1984. The combination of habitat degradation and climate change-induced stress led to the need for the creation of a resilience program. The FRRP includes four program areas: disturbance response monitoring; human dimensions of reef resilience; communications and outreach; and supporting coral reef management and sustainable uses.
The FRRP leads disturbance response monitoring efforts and coordinates research with reef scientists, users, and managers to develop strategies to increase reef resilience. It brings these stakeholders together to answer five fundamental questions:
- Are any of Florida’s reefs resilient?
- If so, where are reefs resilient and where are they not?
- What factors influence resilience?
- Who depends on reefs and what do reef users want and need from coral reefs?
- What actions can people take to maintain the resilience of healthy reefs and improve the resilience of unhealthy reefs?
The FRRP was initiated in 2004 with the creation of a Memorandum of Agreement between the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, NOAA, and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. Since its inception, other partners have joined the FRRP efforts in a Steering Committee, including the University of South Florida, University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, Florida Institute of Technology, Nova Southeastern University, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), TNC, Mote Marine Laboratory, Dry Tortugas National Park, Biscayne National Park, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and EcoAdapt.
Florida Reef Tract Climate Action Plan
Through various projects, collaborations, work with the reef user community, and the Steering Committee, the FRRP has developed management recommendations to increase the resilience of the Florida Reef Tract. During the 2008 Reef Resilience Conference, Coping with Climate Change, a variety of ranked strategies were developed to help guide the creation of a climate change action plan. Recommendations included:
- Developing a comprehensive plan for marine zoning based on best available science, reef resilience principles, and the needs of the community;
- Increasing enforcement, especially in resilient reef areas;
- Requiring user fees to help manage reef resources;
- Demanding strong mitigation efforts at local, regional, national, and international scales;
- Increasing environmental education;
- Decreasing pollution, particularly wastewater outfalls in south Florida; and
- Preventing dredging and other destructive practices in the area.
These recommendations helped inform the development of the Florida Reef Tract Climate Change Action Plan 2010-2015 (the Plan), a compilation of suggested actions needed to increase the resilience of Florida’s reefs and minimize negative impacts on reef-dependent industries. The Plan outlined 10 priority climate change actions for the Florida Reef Tract accompanied by a series of detailed outcomes and action steps. The three priority outcomes of the Plan included:
- Increase coral reef resilience to climate change and ocean acidification through effective management and actions.
- Identify the risks climate change poses to Florida’s coral reef-dependent people and industries, communicate those risks to affected parties, and work with them to develop adaptation strategies that minimize those risks.
- Strengthen the scientific foundation supporting strategic management of the Florida reef system through targeted research, long-term monitoring, and forecasting climate change and ocean acidification impacts.
The FRRP is currently in the process of finalizing a second iteration of the Plan, now rebranded as a ‘Resilience Action Plan.’ The Resilience Action Plan is set to be released in late 2020.
Florida Reef Resilience Program Initiatives
The FRRP aims to increase the stability of coral species in the Florida Reef Tract through understanding coral ecological-resilience as well as conducting restoration projects. In 2009, TNC received a $3.3 million, 3-year grant from NOAA to expand staghorn (Acropora cervicornis) and elkhorn (Acropora palmata) coral restoration through FRRP initiatives. This work was later funded by the TNC-NOAA Community-based Habitat Restoration grant program into 2015. The WWF contributed to FRRP with an analysis of temporal environmental parameters through the Climate Change LEADS (Linking Environmental Analysis through Decision Support) project; this two-year project (2006-2008) was funded by NOAA Climate Office’s Sectoral Applications Research Program.
TNC served as coordinator of FRRP from 2004-2019 and led the program’s disturbance response monitoring efforts. FRRP’s disturbance response monitoring targets shallow coral species and consists of a probabilistic sampling design. As coordinator, TNC commissioned an analysis looking at disturbance response monitoring data to see if it was possible to identify resilient reefs. The dataset is used in ongoing re-zoning efforts in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to ensure the protection of coral reefs. Reef condition surveys and disturbance response monitoring data were used to develop the FRRP 2013 “Florida Reef Tract – Coral Bleaching Response Plan.” Since 2014, FRRP has closely monitored Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD), which has spread throughout most of south Florida and Caribbean waters. FRRP scientists seek to understand why some corals are not being affected by SCTLD and what is making them more resilient.
TNC, alongside FRRP partner organizations, established a communications committee to identify target audiences and develop outreach programs. In 2018, the committee launched the “Respect our Reef” campaign that encourages reef user groups (e.g., fishermen, divers) to recognize their impacts on Florida’s reefs and the opportunities that exist for them to help protect and preserve those systems. In 2019, TNC transferred the FRRP coordinator responsibilities to FWC. Since TNC provided much of the funding for monitoring projects through their partnership with NOAA, FWC is in the process of securing funds to maintain these initiatives once TNC stops contributing the majority of funding in 2020. TNC will remain part of FRRP as a partner in scientific research and as part of the program’s Steering Committee.
Outcomes and Conclusions
The FRRP recognizes that having consistent funding from multiple sources has been essential in implementing resilience actions. Additionally, the success of the FRRP can be attributed to the collaboration and contribution of many different agencies and institutions, participation of the reef user community, and the Steering Committee. The long-term engagement with frontline reef managers has also been a key factor in the successful implementation of FRRP’s recommendations.
A challenge often faced by FRRP is the limited opportunities to make regulatory changes or implement resilience actions. Discussions for re-zoning marine protected areas only take place every few years and competing values, priorities, and politics can make this a difficult process.
Through their restoration programs and updated Resilience Action Plan the FRRP will continue to be a steward of the Florida Reef Tract and guide the protection and management of coral reefs in South Florida.
Can Florida's Coral Reefs Adapt to Global Climate Change?
Stories in Florida: Florida Reef Resilience Program
Reef Resilience Conference 2008: Resilience Strategies
Florida Reef Tract Coral Bleaching Response Plan
Score, A., Gregg, R.M., and Braddock, K.N. (2021). Florida Reef Resilience Program [Case study on a project of The Nature Conservancy - Florida Reef Resilience Program]. Version 2.0. Product of EcoAdapt's State of Adaptation Program. (Last updated May 2021)