CNN Hero Ken Nedimyer: Revitalizing Coral Reefs
17 Sep, 2012
Beneath the ocean waves, many of the incredibly beautiful and colorful coral ecosystems and habitats that support multitudes of life are slipping away. But in this slim moment in time, we do have a chance to save them and begin new ones as well.
Aquarist, CNN Hero and president of the Coral Restoration Foundation Ken Nedimyer is at the forefront of such actions—and through his efforts many reefs are already seeing bright and prolific new life.
“A significant reason reefs are so vital is that the structure they build becomes a habitat for fish and invertebrates,” Nedimyer told Organic Connections. “A small fish living in there becomes prey for a little bit bigger fish, which becomes prey for an even bigger fish. Another issue is coastal protection. A lot of the islands have barrier reefs on the outside that break up the waves. If there isn’t a barrier reef to break the waves up, then it’s usually an
“I think the harm to coral reefs started way before climate change became an issue. It began with people living along the shoreline catching fish, and places have become overfished. Then we’ve polluted the shorelines and the near-shore waters with all kinds of nutrients, from untreated sewage to runoff from agriculture to human settlement. Then you start adding other conditions such as climate change, and some of these reef systems are in a lot of trouble. Some reefs are still away from civilization and a little bit better off, but they’re nevertheless facing these threats that are on the horizon and some would argue are here in our laps today.”
The work that Nedimyer is doing deals with growing corals in underwater nurseries and then “transplanting” them to existing coral reefs. First, pieces of coral are attached to frames made from PVC pipe and fiberglass rods. “It was mostly a way to utilize the three-dimensional space in the water column instead of just growing them on something at the bottom,” Nedimyer explained. “What we found is that the corals grow much faster when they’re suspended on a ‘tree’ than they would on the ocean floor. They’re less vulnerable to predators and disease. We’re not entirely sure of all the reasons, but they do grow like crazy.
“We start with a fragment of, for example, staghorn coral that may be 5 to 10 centimeters long (3 to 4 inches). After six to nine months it’s got 50, 60, 70 centimeters of growth on it—a 500 or 600 percent growth. It’s then ready to be taken off and transplanted onto a reef. There are many ways to attach it: underwater epoxy, cement, nail and cable ties. Then they normally just grow down onto the reef and finish the attachment process themselves.
“When we’ve done a large amount of monitoring, we’ve seen over a two-year period about an 80 percent survival rate of the corals that we put on the reefs,” Nedimyer said. “Those numbers even included a couple of sites that were killed entirely by a cold front. So overall the success rate is fairly high, and we found that there’s spawning on the reefs after two years, which is kind of exciting. We still get breakage, we still get disease, we still get predation on the reef; and so part of our program is to teach people how to do some follow-up maintenance and help take care of the corals.”
The results have been spectacular enough that Nedimyer was named a CNN Hero. “We’ve got about 16 reefs that we’ve planted on,” he continued. “We have permits now for sites that we’re starting to plan or plant; I don’t even remember the number, but there are over 30 reef sites in the Florida Keys, and we’re going to be restoring pretty much every named reef in the Upper Florida Keys. Then there’s a bunch of unnamed reefs, and there are reefs off of Key West. We have big dreams; we’ve got a permit that is going to allow us to put 50,000 corals on reefs over the next five years, so we’re taking it up a notch from what we have done in the past. The average reef now is going to get a thousand new corals from us over the next two years and some are going to get a couple of thousand, so it will have a noticeable impact. If you have 80 percent of those living—even if you only have 50 percent of those living—everybody is going to notice the change.”
All of this is quite in addition to the work he is doing in remote parts of the world. “My wife and I just got back from Bonaire, a little island in the Caribbean near Aruba,” Nedimyer said. “We started a nursery there in April and went down to see how it’s doing, and it was doing great. We ended up cutting 1,150 new corals and putting them back into the nursery. We also have a nursery in Colombia, and are looking at setting up nurseries in Grand Cayman and Roatán. Somebody from Saint Lucia has called me, so I need to track that down too.”
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Passing It On
While he is performing all this work, Nedimyer is engaging the help of students and volunteers—who become fascinated with the possibilities. “It seems like a lot of people didn’t think it was possible; they’ve never heard about doing this kind of thing,” he remarked. “They’re always blown away by how fast the corals grow and how well they do. They’re excited to be able to finally see something happening and know that there’s hope. I know a lot of people, when they dive, see things that need to be fixed, and usually you’re not allowed to touch anything. There are reasons for that, but there should also be a mechanism to put things back together after they’ve been damaged by a storm or whatever. So I’m trying to scratch that itch.”
The ocean attracted Nedimyer from an early age. “We lived near the beach when I was growing up in Central Florida,” he recalled. “As a kid I was watching Sea Hunt and then Jacques Cousteau. Especially the Jacques Cousteau stuff, for anybody my age, was just so cool. Because coral reefs were fairly close to where I was, it simply became something I wanted to do. People like different things—rainforests or mountains. I thought coral reefs and the mystery and the unknown and ‘never been done’ were tantalizing. So I had to find a job that kept me in it, and it’s been great.”
Nedimyer will never give up—but he needs everyone else to get on board as well, whether living by the ocean or not. “I think that developing these regional nursery programs is going to help, but we need to certainly change the way we treat our oceans,” he concluded. “Everybody just thought they were so big and inexhaustible that we could take fish out of them forever and dump crap in them forever—and we can’t do either one. You have to manage fisheries; you have to manage inputs into the system. I think we are realizing that even the carbon dioxide in the air as it dissolves into the water is causing problems. Our society needs to start realizing that, even if you live in Minnesota, ultimately there’s an impact; your carbon footprint is going to be felt in the oceans first and on coral reefs in particular.”
For more information, please visit www.coralrestoration.org.