Coral Reef Conservation Program Awards $9.3 Million In Grants

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NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program has awarded more than $9.3 million in grants to support coral conservation projects and scientific studies. The target regions range from 7 US states and territories, the Caribbean, Micronesia, the South Pacific, southern Mexico, and northern Central America. Grant and cooperative agreement recipients are also providing more than $5.4 million in matching support — a total of $14.7 million for these critical projects.

These projects and studies will help address the 3 primary threats to coral reefs:

The awards also fund activities to heal and restore damaged coral reefs.

Coral Reef Conservation Program
Scientists collect data in the Florida Keys. Photo credit: NOAA

The NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program‘s mission is to protect, conserve, and restore coral reef resources by maintaining healthy ecosystem function. Nearly half of the funds will support projects led by state and territorial resource management agencies, while other projects will be run by non-governmental organizations, community groups, and academic partners. The awards will build on long-term project partnerships with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and The Nature Conservancy.

What is a Coral?

Corals are animals, although they seem to have some of the characteristics of plants and are often mistaken for rocks. In scientific classification, corals fall under the phylum Cnidaria and the class Anthozoa. They are relatives of jellyfish and anemones.

As with many other types of animals, different species of coral are found in different habitats and different locations around the world. For example, similar but distinct species of Acropora coral have evolved in the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean.

Shallow tropical reefs in the Indian and Pacific Oceans boast the most coral species. To date, almost 800 species of reef-building corals have been identified, with new discoveries occurring each year. Of the known species, the majority are found in the Indian and Pacific oceans—an area known as the Indo-Pacific region. There are over 600 species of coral found in the Coral Triangle alone—a region encompassing the waters around the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands—making this region the global hotspot of coral diversity.

Areas of Research for the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program

Among other projects, the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program studies focus on the loss of coral reef from disease and how water quality and environmental change can affect reefs.

For example, Florida’s coral reefs are experiencing a multi-year outbreak of stony coral tissue loss disease. While disease outbreaks are not uncommon, this event is unique due to its large geographic range, extended duration, rapid progression, high rates of mortality and the number of species affected.

The disease is thought to be caused by bacteria and can be transmitted to other corals through direct contact and water circulation. Researchers are working to identify potential pathogens and relationships with environmental factors, strategies to treat diseased colonies, and genotypes of corals that are resistant to the disease.

Infographic retrieved from NOAA

Impacts from Climate Change & Ocean Acidification

Changes are occurring to the ocean. The ocean absorbs about 30% of the carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels. That absorption has resulted in the ocean becoming more acidic and is seriously affecting marine life.

As temperatures rise, mass coral bleaching events and infectious disease outbreaks are becoming more frequent. Additionally, carbon dioxide absorbed into the ocean from the atmosphere has already begun to reduce calcification rates in reef-building and reef-associated organisms by altering seawater chemistry through decreases in pH. This process is called ocean acidification.

Climate change will affect coral reef ecosystems through sea level rise, changes to the frequency and intensity of tropical storms, and altered ocean circulation patterns. When combined, all of these impacts dramatically alter ecosystem function as well as the goods and services coral reef ecosystems provide to people around the globe.

Infographic retrieved from NOAA

The Consequences of Land-Based Sources of Pollution

The NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program is actively engaged in efforts to mitigate the impacts of land-based pollution on coral reefs. Impacts from land-based sources of pollution — including coastal development, deforestation, agricultural runoff, and oil and chemical spills — can impede coral growth and reproduction, disrupt overall ecological function, and cause disease and mortality in sensitive species.

It is now well accepted that many serious coral reef ecosystem stressors originate from land-based sources, most notably toxicants, sediments, and nutrients.

Within the US, there are numerous locations where coral reef ecosystems are highly impacted by watershed alteration, runoff, and coastal development. On US islands in the Pacific and Caribbean, significant changes in the drainage basins due to agriculture, deforestation, grazing of feral animals, fires, road building, and urbanization have increased the volume of land-based pollution released to adjacent coral reef ecosystems.

Many of these issues are made worse because of the geographic and climatic characteristics found in tropical island areas. Together they create unique management challenges.

The importance of identifying the extent and reducing these effects has now become crucial, as land-based pollution and coastal development put coral reef ecosystems around the nation at risk.

NOAA scientists teamed with local partners to complete the development of watershed management plans for priority watersheds in our 7 US coral reef areas. Work is underway to implement effective management practices and support research to grow understanding of new technologies to reduce land-based sources of pollution. Additionally, NOAA provides technical assistance to foster institutional partnerships and leverage financial resources to maximize our impact.

Have We Piqued Your Interest in a NOAA Grant?

Are you interested in applying for a NOAA Grant? Come to a FREE Grant Writing Workshop to learn how! All workshops will be held over two days from 9:00am – 4:30 pm and include:

  • Day One: Training and hands-on exercises on how to write a competitive grant.
  • Day Two: One on one mentoring.

Register now for a location near you in a Pacific or Atlantic/Caribbean (coming soon) jurisdiction.

Final Thoughts

“Healthy and diverse coral reefs support the nation’s blue economy through tourism and recreation, coastal flood and storm protection, and seafood production,” said Jennifer Koss, director of the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program. “We are delighted to continue funding research and activities that reduce local threats and advance conservation strategies so that we can sustain coral reef ecosystems for generations to come.”

All of the proposals submitted for NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program funding underwent extensive and rigorous technical review. Curious to see what projects might have been funded in your area? A full list of the awards and grantees is available online.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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