By: Andrew Heise
Coral reefs are some of the most diverse ecosystems on the Earth; home to millions of species, all with various physiological differences and ecological purposes. The reefs, along with the gorgeous fish that inhabit them, attract much attention particularly in the Florida Keys. Reefs provide food, protection, habitat, and breeding grounds for many recreationally, commercially, and ecologically significant fish. Before continuing their life on the reef, many of these juvenile fish actually grow up in the mangrove marshes that make up the coasts and banks of the Florida Keys. The region acts as nursery grounds for many species of fish and secure areas for juveniles to grow before recruiting to the reefs. The diversity of life within these estuaries is abundant.
Much like coral, the amount of mangrove thickets and marshes have dropped dramatically within recent decades due to damaging human interactions, such as land-based development and mosquito control protocols. Not often recognized for their full benefits, these ecosystems provide many functions for coral reefs, including contributing to fish populations, providing barriers that maintain high water quality in local areas, and stifling erosion onshore.
As done with coral, restoration plans can be put into effect to assist the population recovery of mangroves. Certain efforts to restore natural mangrove coasts have been put into effect such as protective sleeves that sit around the trees allowing them to climb up similar to fruit orchards, and allow for safety, shelter, and higher success rates. Since the climate is perfect in the Florida Keys for mangroves to thrive, re-seeding mangrove habitats and limiting damaging access can provide numerous restoration benefits. If populations of mangroves were to be restored along the coasts of the Keys, it’s possible that local coral reefs may become more resilient to the environmental stressors they are currently subjected to. One phrase we use often at the Coral Restoration Foundation is that everything is connected. Healthy populations of mangroves provide opportune ecosystems for juvenile fish species, which in turn, assist coral reef ecosystems and restore the proper balance between corals, fish, algae, and invertebrates that successful reefs require.