The Johnny Appleseed of Florida’s coral reefs

KEY LARGO — A three-year, $3.3 million coral restoration project to grow threatened staghorn and elkhorn corals to replenish decimated reefs started with the pioneering efforts of a Keys resident who makes a living collecting tropical fish.

Ken Nedimyer, 54, used his enthusiasm and successful results growing corals to win over government resource managers, environmentalists and scientists who were skeptical that mass coral restoration was possible.

During his spare time, on a shoestring budget with volunteer help and a 1974 20-foot MAKO boat, Nedimyer spent nearly a decade creating a large-scale coral nursery in 25-foot waters off Key Largo. The nursery has become the model for seven others in the coral restoration project led by The Nature Conservancy, with partners that include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the University of Miami, Nova Southeastern University and Mote Marine Laboratory in the Keys.

“I’m just blown away,” NOAA’s top leader, Administrator Jane Lubchenco, said recently after an underwater tour of Nedimyer’s coral nursery and restoration site.

With $167 million in stimulus funds for habitat restoration projects, NOAA brass sifted though 814 proposals to choose 50 projects from across the country. The criteria for selection: the project had to be “shovel ready,” create jobs and restore the environment for years to come. Nedimyer’s corals will be used to restore reefs in Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“This project was very appealing because the proof of concept had already been demonstrated,” Lubchenco said.

That proof came from Nedimyer. While corals have been grown for decades for saltwater aquariums and by scientists and researchers to study, “the previous efforts were done on a smaller scale,” said Diego Lirman, assistant professor at UM’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

Chris Bergh, director of The Nature Conservancy’s Florida Keys program, said Nedimyer was the “thought leader” who saw the big picture.

“His idea was not to just grow them, but to restore the vitality of Florida’s coral reefs and help recover a staghorn population that really had been wiped out over the last 30 years,” Bergh said.

Using Nedimyer’s methods cultivated over years of trial and error, Lirman set up a thriving coral nursery in Biscayne National Park in 2007. Six other nurseries also have been created using Nedimyer’s design in waters off Broward County, Marathon, Big Pine Key, the Dry Tortugas, St. Croix and St. Thomas.

The tall, bearded Nedimyer jokingly refers to himself as “Johnny Appleseed — or Ken Coralseed. I’m planting the seeds that will keep growing.”

Nedimyer didn’t start the nursery on a quest to save the reefs of the Caribbean, which scientists say have lost 70 to 90 percent of their corals since the 1970s due primarily to disease and bleaching from warm water. His original motivation was money.

In 2000, his daughter Kelly needed a 4H project. Nedimyer suggested growing corals, which are small marine organisms. He’s made a good living selling legally collected angelfish, jawfish, sponges and other marine life, and thought the project would be lucrative.

He laughs now at the profit he and his daughter have made from selling harvested staghorn corals: zero. But the initial desire for a commercial enterprise is the reason Nedimyer created methods to mass produce the fast-growing branching corals.

Good fortune also helped. In 1996 and 1997, six staghorn corals settled on his underwater farm of “live rock” — rock infused with microscopic organisms used in big salt water aquariums — an occurrence that hasn’t happened since. Nedimyer was able to work on the normally protected corals without anybody looking over his shoulder.

“We didn’t have to write a big report when something died,” he said. “We just tried something else.”

A big breakthrough came last year when one cluster of corals raised by Nedimyer and transplanted to a freighter grounding site in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary began sexual reproduction.

“To go from a little ¾-inch tip of a branch to a spawning colony within two years was unbelievable,” said Billy Causey, Southeast Regional Director of the National Marine Sanctuary Program.