Coral reef

NOAA and NFWF: 20 years for coral

2020 Conservation Highlights

Coral reef

Of all our nation’s many natural wonders, coral reefs might be the most alluring. Who hasn’t dreamed of snorkeling around a coral reef, immersed in a kaleidoscope of color, movement and wondrous sea life? Those fortunate enough to witness the beauty and complexity of a healthy coral reef don’t soon forget it.

These rich marine habitats aren’t just a great place to visit; they play a vital role in the resilience of our coasts and strength of our nation. Coral reefs cover more than 4 million acres of seafloor off the coasts of the United States and its territories. Federal experts estimate that coral reefs generate more than $3.4 billion of value each year through tourism, fishing, local jobs and the protection of coastal communities from erosion, wave energy and damage from intensifying storms.

Unfortunately, land-based sources of pollution, unsustainable fishing practices, and the negative effects of climate change continue to degrade the health of coral reefs around the world, including those found off Florida, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam and other parts of the United States. 

In 2020, we announced more than $1.4 million in grants to improve the health and resilience of coral reefs. We also joined NOAA in marking an important milestone in our longstanding partnership to restore and enhance coral reefs: 20 years of working together through NFWF’s Coral Reef Conservation Fund.

Watch: NFWF works with NOAA and other federal and private partners to conserve coral reefs.

We worked with NOAA to launch the fund after the Coral Reef Conservation Act was signed into law on December 23, 2000. In the following 20 years, our coral conservation program brought together expertise from across NOAA and its partners to protect, conserve and restore the nation’s coral reef ecosystems. Since 2000, the program has awarded more than $20 million across 400 projects, leveraging over $27 million in conservation resources to generate a total conservation impact of more than $48 million. 

NFWF manages the Coral Reef Conservation Fund in partnership with NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program, with additional support from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. In 2020, we welcomed Aramco, a global leader in the production of energy, as a new partner in the conservation of coral reefs.

"It’s no secret that life is tough for corals all over the world, but there are also many reasons to maintain hope for the future of these ecosystems. Our partnership with NFWF identifies and focuses resources on the most effective ways to address this challenge."
   – Jennifer Koss, director of NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program


Targeted watershed runoff abatement

Changes to the Earth’s climate and the chemical composition of its seas represent fundamental threats to corals. However, some of the most urgent threats come not from air or water, but from land. Waters running off city streets and agricultural lands carry excess nutrients, harmful chemicals and sedimentation onto nearshore coral reefs. We build partner coalitions around priority reef strongholds and establish the framework for their stabilization and recovery through comprehensive threat reduction. These concentrated investments mobilize and focus resources where efforts can generate real-world results. In 2020 we prioritized three reefs in Hawaii that provide seed-stock to the surrounding reefs of three islands for this comprehensive approach. Grant examples include:

A grant of $269,000 will enable the Ridge to Reefs organization to work with managers and local partners to reduce runoff to all three reefs (West and South Maui and Lanai) through vegetation buffers, sediment retention areas, and a new method in Hawaii for secondary sewage treatment that will reduce harmful nutrient runoff. 


The Coral Reef Alliance will use a grant of $84,000 to address land-based pollution from sedimentation in the West Maui, Hawaii focal area by working with agricultural land owners to reduce erosion from dirt roads on the steep slopes of their agricultural fields.

The Nature Conservancy will use a grant of $71,000 to establish a baseline of the nearshore fish and coral communities along the northeast coast of Lanai, Hawaii and establish sedimentation flow patterns that will prioritize ungulate control efforts in the neighboring watersheds to reduce sediment run-off.

Capacity for large-scale reef restoration

Coral reefs repopulate naturally as threats are reduced, but many severely degraded reefs have lost their ability to recover naturally. In 2020, we added a new emphasis on increasing capacity for direct replanting efforts on reefs where the threats have been reduced enough to promote growth. Our grantees are establishing nurseries and techniques to increase the survivorship of outplants so that large-scale restoration efforts are possible. Restored and enhanced reefs will serve as footholds of biodiversity and sources of brood stock that will help replenish and recover nearby reefs after episodic events. Our 2020 grant-making focused on support for the Mission Iconic Reefs effort in the Florida Keys, which will be the nation’s largest coral reef restoration ever attempted. Grant examples include:

A grant of $169,000 to The Florida Aquarium will increase genetic diversity of coral species and develop a nursery stock of urchins, a primary herbivore, to be used in the broader restoration effort in the Florida Keys. 

The Coral Restoration Foundation support active coral restoration at four sites in the Florida Keys.
The Coral Restoration Foundation support active coral restoration at four sites in the Florida Keys.

Researchers at the University of Florida will use a grant of $149,000 to field-test management interventions to address local threats to coral restoration success such as predation from snails in Florida.

A grant of $100,000 will enable the Coral Restoration Foundation to support active coral restoration at four sites in the Florida Keys to benefit endangered coral species. Project will improve 28 acres of reef habitat through increased coral propagation and direct reef restoration.

Management tools for coral reefs and reef fish conservation

Our grants also support groundbreaking research and drive innovation to build foundational capacity and knowledge throughout the coral management community. This increased capacity can then be leveraged to improve the health of reefs globally. Grant examples include: 

Researchers at the University of California will use a grant of $62,000 to study the relationship between herbivorous fish biomass and coral reef condition and how this relationship impacts the resilience of coral reefs in American Samoa to other stressors.  

The University of Guam will use a grant of $119,000 to develop a genetic toolkit to detect, identify and quantify stress before the onset of physical symptoms in two of the most common and important coral species on Guam

Researchers at Texas A&M University will use a grant of $25,000 to coordinate a peer exchange between coral reef scientists and officials in the Gulf of Mexico and Greater Caribbean region to monitor and mitigate stony coral tissue loss disease, a disease that is spreading across the Caribbean with devastating coral losses. 

Want to learn more? Explore an interactive map of where we work.

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