Millions in new federal money could help save Florida’s ailing coral

‘We’re in a tough situation,’ Rep. Darren Soto

ORLANDO, Fla. – After four years of trying, lawmakers hope new federal money will be used to fuel efforts to save Florida’s coral reef, which some fear is on the brink of extinction.

“We’re in a tough situation,” Rep. Darren Soto, D-Florida, said.

Soto teamed up with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, to introduce the Restoring Resilient Reefs Act in both houses of Congress.

It finally passed during the last session after it was attached to the defense spending bill.

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Now signed into law, it authorizes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to increase its spending on coral reef restoration from $16 million to $45 million each year.

It also creates a state block grant program of $12 million each year.

“This is the first big step to making sure we have the resources to protect one of the most important environmental treasures in the ocean here in Florida,” Soto told News 6.

In previous reporting, scientists said the coral that lives right off the Florida coast is dying due to a combination of factors: bleaching, which is caused by the sun and warm water; damage caused by humans and boats; and stony coral tissue disease, which is a mysterious but treatable illness.

News 6 recently accompanied Soto as he toured an upcoming new coral rehabilitation addition to SeaWorld Orlando.

“We are now going to get stable funding for the next five years to help out with improving infrastructure to help clean water as well as to help repropagate the reefs,” Soto said. “They are doing that research right here at SeaWorld, which is really exciting.”

Jim Kinsler is SeaWorld’s aquarium curator and the manager of the Florida Coral Rescue Center in Orlando, where SeaWorld has teamed up with Disney and others to grow threatened coral species in a controlled environment.

“This is truly the first time we are rescuing an entire ecosystem,” Kinsler said.

Florida Coral Rescue Center (WKMG-TV)

Once the corals are repropagated, they are returned to the ocean, where the hope is they will continue to grow and repopulate.

Kinsler said the center has been so successful and so large, it will now “spill over” to SeaWorld Orlando’s Rescue Experience, where the public will be able to see the efforts in-person.

“This is a fully functional rescue facility,” Kinsler told News 6. “The coral colonies that our guests are going to see are part of the actual rescue program.”

This rendering shows the new coral rescue exhibit currently under construction in the former Turtle Trek theater at SeaWorld Orlando. (Courtesy: SeaWorld Orlando) (Copyright 2023 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

Construction is currently underway on the project, which will take the place of Turtle Trek, a walk-through 3D film experience.

Kinsler said the new exhibit will still feature projections, but guests will now be able to see SeaWorld’s coral rescue work.

The park has not announced an opening date.

Rep. Darran Soto, D-Florida, is shown what will be the new coral rescue exhibit at SeaWorld Orlando's Rescue Experience. (Copyright 2023 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

“What we hope people take away is the health of our oceans, the health of the coastline, the health of the Florida Reef track itself, it’s entirely in our control,” he said. “We need to be aware of what we do in the environment, the effects that climate has on the environment, that pollution has on the environment, and really, to understand that everything is truly connected.”

News 6 contacted NOAA to see how much of the $45 million will be distributed to Florida coral rescue efforts as California and Hawaii are also vying for some of the funding.

Spokeswoman Kate Silverstein said the agency is currently conducting a policy and legal analysis of the bill and will create a transition plan for the implementation.

She noted the bill authorized $45 million in spending each year, but it did not provide all of the new money.

The appropriation for this fiscal year is $33.5 million.

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About the Author:

Erik Sandoval joined the News 6 team as a reporter in May 2013 and became an Investigator in 2020. During his time at News 6, Erik has covered several major stories, including the 2016 Presidential campaign. He was also one of the first reporters live on the air at the Pulse Nightclub shooting.