Senators join forces to increase coral reef funding

Reef outcropping in southeast Florida
Reef outcropping in southeast Florida
Peter Leahy via Shutterstock

A bipartisan bill introduced last week by Sen. Marco Rubio could boost efforts to protect and restore the more than 330 nautical miles of Florida’s coral reef.

The Restoring Resilient Reefs Act of 2021 bill (S. 46) is designed to reauthorize the Coral Reef Conservation Act of 2000, which expired more than 15 years ago, and strengthen the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Reef Conservation Program.

Florida also could expect to benefit from a portion of the bill that offers federal funding and technical assistance to states, territories and local communities involved in conserving the country’s coral reefs.

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In addition to providing help to states in managing and restoring coral reefs, the bill lays out a process for developing crisis plans, declaring coral reef emergencies and allows for grants to deal with those emergencies, including natural disasters, diseases outbreaks, hazardous spills and vessel groundings.

“I saw the devastated condition of our coral reefs firsthand when touring the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, and I promised a comprehensive response,” Rubio said in a press release about the bill.

Coral reefs play important roles in both Florida’s environmental protection and economic development. Coral reefs help shield against coastal flooding and shoreline erosion and are key parts of South Florida’s tourism and fishing industries. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection estimates that the state’s coral reefs provide total a tourism value of $1.1 billion annually.

The bill is co-sponsored by Rubio’s fellow Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott and by Hawaii’s two Democratic Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono.

“During my time as governor of Florida, we worked to increase investments in our environments by $1 billion to preserve and protect our natural resources,” Scott said in a press release. “I will continue working to make sure future generations can enjoy all that Florida has to offer.”

Rubio introduced a similar bill during the 2020 legislative season. It passed the Senate unanimously in December, but a companion bill in the House stalled at the end of the congressional year. Rubio reintroduced the Senate bill Jan. 26.

“I thank my Senate colleagues for passing my bill last Congress, and I am hopeful that both the House and Senate can quickly approve this legislation, so it can become law,” Rubio said.

The Senate bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation for consideration. Co-sponsors Scott and Schatz both serve on the Senate committee and on its Subcommittee on Science, Oceans, Fisheries, and Weather.

A companion bill in the House (H.R. 160) was introduced Jan. 4 by Democratic Rep. Darren Soto of Florida’s 9th Congressional District. The house bill was co-sponsored by Republican Rep. Brian Mast of Florida’s 18th District and representatives from Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Island and American Samoa.

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