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RESTORING AN ECOSYSTEM: Molasses Reef

For years, Molasses Reef looked like a colorful carpet of living coral with thousands of tropical fish species darting in and out of the reef, as the photo at the bottom of the page shows. This barrier reef stretches for miles southeast of Key Largo, Florida, and is part of the third-largest reef system in the world.

Disaster Strikes the Reef

The Wellwood, a cargo ship measuring 366 feet long, wrecked on Molasses Reef on August 4, 1984. It took 12 days for tugboats to remove the ship with steel cables, as the photo below shows. This motion crushed large areas of coral. Furthermore, the ship created shade over the coral, starving its symbiotic photosynthesizers for days. As a result, the shaded coral lost its living layer and lost its color, a condition known as bleaching. Animals such as fishes and crabs left the area. By the end of summer, one-half of a square mile of Molasses Reef was pulverized, and an additional 6 square miles were damaged.

Restoration and Stabilization of Molasses Reef

The owners of the Wellwood agreed to fund the restoration of Molasses Reef. Soon after the accident, divers put some of the fallen coral back in place. They later transplanted several species of living coral from nearby reef sites. The most extreme repair involved filling large holes and cracks in the reef with concrete and building 22 structures to restore the basic shape of the reef. Each structure weighed more than 3,500 pounds. Ultimately, biologists hoped to restore the appearance of the reef and

1. What events led to coral reef bleaching at Molasses Reef?

2. Why is education important in protecting Molasses Reef?

3. Critical Thinking Do you think boats should be allowed in a marine sanctuary? Explain your answer.

In the 12 days it took to remove the wrecked Wellwood from Molasses Reef, much of the reef community was lost. But efforts to restore the community are beginning to have positive results.

In the 12 days it took to remove the wrecked Wellwood from Molasses Reef, much of the reef community was lost. But efforts to restore the community are beginning to have positive results.

stabilize the biological community. More than 20 years later, marine biologists are seeing the regrowth of m any, but not al l , of the original coral species.

Future Protection of the Florida Keys Reef Ecosystem

People can damage reef systems in other ways as well. More than 3 million people visit the Keys each year, and about 80,000 people live there. The U.S. Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have ongoing goals for protecting Molasses Reef, which is now part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. One goal is to control sewage runoff. Another goal is to educate residents and visitors about damage from boats, divers, fishers, and beachgoers. Programs are underway to protect this unique ecosystem.

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