UAE support to restore hurricane-hit Florida Keys reefs delivers hope out of devastation

UAE's multimillion-dollar investment helps to revitalise seven reefs badly damaged during Hurricane Irma in September 2017

An artificial reef off Destin, Florida. AP
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A partnership between the UAE and the US is proving vital to the restoration of coral cover in the Florida Keys and may offer lessons for reef preservation around the Emirates, experts said.

The UAE made a multimillion-dollar contribution last year to help restore seven reefs in the Florida Keys, which suffered severe damage during Hurricane Irma in September 2017.

To mark World Oceans Day on June 8, the project was the focus of a live online discussion on Monday between the UAE embassy in Washington, DC, the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

The seven Florida Keys sites retain just 2 per cent of their original coral cover, but the United Way of Collier and the Keys project, to which the UAE contributed $3.5 million (Dh12.9m), aims to increase this to 25 per cent.

“Our partnership came out of a terrible event for Florida, which was the Hurricane Irma,” said Sarah Fangman, superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

"But I think you and your colleagues had the vision to understand that from a tragedy comes an opportunity, and so this was an opportunity for us to work together to try to advance restoration here."

Ms Fangman said the UAE’s donation, announced in February 2020, was “the first catalyst funding” that provided momentum to the restoration, which involves propagating coral and placing it at reef sites to encourage regrowth.

The grant, part of $10m given by the UAE for Hurricane Irma relief, will also provide scholarships for students in Florida to study marine science, and enable UAE and US coral restoration experts to work together.

UAE funds are also supporting Reef Futures 2021, a conference on restoring coral reefs to be held in Florida in December.

Coral is also being "replanted" off the UAE’s east coast.

World Oceans Day 2021:

Ms Fangman saw this for herself when diving off Fujairah and said the partnership between the UAE and the US would allow ideas on coral restoration to be exchanged.

“Those kinds of international partnerships allow us all to advance our techniques and science faster,” she said.

Such restoration work in the UAE is crucial, said Hamad Al Jailani, the environment agency’s assistant scientist of marine habitat programmes.

High temperatures and salinity meant coral in the UAE was already at its limit, Mr Al Jailani said.

This makes it harder for them to cope with climate change.

They are suffering more frequent bleaching events, in which the corals expel the algae that live within their tissues, turning the structures white and cutting their food supply.

Mr Al Jailani said a 2017 bleaching event in the UAE reduced coral cover by 65 per cent.

“It’s been slowly recovering over time but we’re always anticipating something around the corner," he said.

"So we’ve redoubled our efforts in rehabilitation and coral conservation."