Lawmakers work together in bipartisan effort to save Florida’s coral reefs

Democrat Rep. Darren Soto, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio file identical bills

ORLANDO, Fla. – Opposing Florida politicians have joined forces to pass legislation aimed at saving Florida’s coral from possible extinction.

Rep. Darren Soto, D-Kissimmee, and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, have filed identical bills in Washington, D.C. seeking millions of dollars to help federal and state agencies.

Researchers said the coral off Florida’s coast has fallen victim to rising water temperatures as the result of climate change, become sickened by human-caused pollutants and contracted a disease that causes deadly tissue loss.

“The Great Florida Reef is under attack,” Soto said.

Soto said he saw what’s happening to the waning coral population first-hand during a SCUBA trip to Key Largo.

“It was a real personal moment because I see the decline of the Great Florida Reef and the sense of responsibility to help save it,” he said.

Rep. Darren Soto, D-Kissimmee, SCUBA dives off Key Largo to inspect the coral reef. Courtesy: Rep. Soto (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

“I have seen firsthand how dire the situation is and we absolutely must be doing more to protect our corals, so that current and future generations can continue to enjoy the reefs off of Florida’s coasts,” Rubio said. “This is not a partisan issue, and the Restoring Resilient Reefs Act presents the best opportunity we have to effectively support coral restoration efforts in Florida and across the nation.”

Soto’s House Bill 160 and Rubio’s Senate Bill 46 are identical.

If they’re passed by both houses of congress, $53 million would be made available to national coral restoration efforts.

Individual states would qualify for $15 million of that money, meaning possibly more help for the Florida Coral Rescue Project.

The Florida Coral Rescue Project is a collaboration of agencies throughout the state which are trying to identify health issues with coral, re-propagate them in laboratories and re-plant healthy species back in the ocean.

For example, Disney and SeaWorld are helping to grow more than 700 healthy corals in a facility in Orlando.

In Lauderdale-By-The-Sea, a group of combat veterans conduct dives to monitor a reef for signs of decay and illness.

Dr. Michael Crosby, President and CEO of Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota — which is part of the rescue project — said federal funding is vital to continuing the life-saving efforts.

“(The legislation) is changing the way the federal government would support this kind of restoration in getting the funds out of the government agencies out of the bureaucracies and into the practitioners’ hands,” he said.

Crosby said he helped Rubio’s staff craft the language of the legislation.

He said if it passes both houses of congress, it may be just the thing researchers and the coral need.

“We’re witnessing these coral reefs sliding into extinction, and as scientists, the last thing I want to do is say, ‘we did a damn good job monitoring them into extinction.’ I’d rather say, ‘we did a damn good job in actually restoring them and bringing them back,’” he said.

Rubio told News 6 the bill has “major momentum” in the U.S. Senate. In fact, he said the bill passed the Senate, last year.

Last week, the House version passed the Natural Resources Committee, last week, with a unanimous vote.

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.