Coral Restoration Foundation program manager leads the effort to bring Florida’s reef back from the brink of extinction
For many people, the health of coral reefs is an out of sight, out of mind problem.
“Unless you live by the coast and have regular access to visit a coral reef, people can develop a misconception that it doesn’t affect them and why worry about it,” says Jessica Levy, reef restoration program manager for the Coral Restoration Foundation.
Since 2012, Jessica has worked with the foundation, bringing new life to the Florida Reef Tract. She is driven by a passion to ensure survival of the critically endangered coral reef.
“The reality is that reefs provide so many benefits to us,” Jessica says. “Just because we can’t see them doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care about their status and how we can be better reef stewards.”
A Love of the Water
Whether at work or play, Jessica is drawn to water.
She credits the fond memories she made visiting the North Carolina coast with her family for her love of the ocean and her career path.
“We spent time playing in the sand and along the shore, hopping over waves as they broke—typical kid stuff,” Jessica says. “I grew to love all aspects of the ocean and to respect all that it can provide. Being near an ocean and feeling connected to it quickly became my happy place.
“My parents could have taken us camping and I’d probably have a totally different pathway in life.”
When Jessica joined the Coral Restoration Foundation, her work was heavily water-focused. Today, she estimates 75 percent of her time is spent on land managing staff, nursery operations, outplanting, dive facilities and funding.
Outside of work, Jessica enjoys traveling, noting most of her destinations include a dive element.
From early in life, Jessica, 30, says she knew she wanted to work around water.
“I fell in love with diving instantly,” she says. “It was a way to do more and see more than just floating at the surface and being limited by a single breath of air.
“Diving is weird at first because humans aren’t meant to breathe underwater, so it feels odd. Your reflexes are telling you this is weird, but then you trust your instructor, your gear and yourself, and then the weirdness goes away.”
Jessica spent her 21st birthday on a night dive off the coast of Wilmington, North Carolina, which is known for its wreck dives and sharks.
“I was swimming along and all of a sudden started rising slowly,” she says. “Unbeknownst to me, my weight belt had slipped off. I managed to come up under a lovely sand tiger shark and headbutted her in the belly before the dive guide grabbed me and put the belt back on.”
During her undergraduate studies in marine science/conservation, Jessica spent a semester studying in Australia and then Curacao. The summer after earning her degree, she worked with the Marine Conservation Institute in California.
“When I moved to Australia for graduate school, I got to dive the Great Barrier Reef and that was it,” Jessica says. “I knew I wanted to work with corals and focus on their preservation and protection.”
Striving for Survival
The modern order of corals has been around more than 300 million years and has survived three mass extinctions.
“Coral reefs are vital to life on this planet,” Jessica says. “Coral reefs are the oceans’ most diverse and productive ecosystem. It is estimated more than 70 percent of the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean—a result of the delicate balance of the interconnected web of life in our seas. Coral reefs are an important component of this balance.”
Coral reefs are estimated to provide goods and services worth $375 billion each year—“an amazing figure for an environment that covers less than 1 percent of the Earth’s surface,” Jessica says.
In an age of increasingly extreme weather, coastal barriers provided by reefs cause waves to break farther offshore, dissipating the water’s energy before it reaches the coastline. As reefs degrade, waves reach the coastline with far greater energy, causing destructive erosion, property damage and loss of life.
“We need people to understand how interconnected the systems of our world are,” Jessica says. “If we lose all of our world’s shallow water coral reefs, this will be the first time that humanity has faced the loss of an entire ecosystem, so we don’t fully understand what the repercussions would ultimately be.”
Education is a vital component of the Coral Restoration Foundation’s work.
“People need to become more ocean conscious, encourage better practices and promote better actions in their everyday life,” Jessica says. “Every choice we make matters. Think about this: Every single piece of plastic you have ever used still exists. Every straw, every plastic bottle, every plastic bag. When we think we are throwing things away, there is no ‘away.’ A lot of this plastic ends up making its way into our oceans.”
Recreational divers have opportunities to help the foundation with active reef restoration. Through Skype, staff “visit” classrooms around the world to talk about coral reefs. Teachers get resources to integrate coral reef information into lesson plans.
“We take part in shows and events, where our team answers questions and gives people insight into coral reefs, the threats they face and the ways everyone can help protect life in our oceans,” Jessica says.
Giving Nature a Boost
During the past decade, the Coral Restoration Foundation has developed a science-driven method for farming and outplanting colonies of staghorn and elkhorn coral, hanging finger-sized fragments on Coral Trees—a structure of PVC pipes—suspended in a nutrient- and sunlight-rich water column.
Colonies are large enough to be planted onto the reef in six to nine months. With around 500 Coral Trees across seven large underwater nurseries, the foundation has now planted almost 70,000 corals onto the Florida Reef Tract.
Outplanted coral thickets now spawn naturally—evidence the work is paying off.
The goal is to bring reefs to a condition where their natural recovery processes can take over, and they can return themselves to a healthy state.
The Tavernier nursery—the largest of seven in the Keys—spans around an acre-and-a-half of seafloor. That is roughly the size of a football field.
“At a personal level, I’m always blown away by the sheer scale of the nursery and its operations,” Jessica says. “At a professional level, I’m intimidated by it, which is why I’m grateful for the staff we have that do this daily, and the interns and volunteers that are so dedicated.”
She says the first thing you notice in the Tavernier nursery is the amount of coral and nursery structures.
“It is one after another,” Jessica says. “Then you start to swim and you see the details—the many different types of corals, the other fish and invertebrates that have made the nursery their home, and all the little polyps with outreached tentacles.
“We are operating at an unprecedented scale, which is amazing in itself, but also is a big responsibility. A lot of times, my mind is on the work we’re trying to accomplish. But then occasionally you get a fun dive or something really cool swims through, like a hammerhead shark or a pod of dolphins, and it’s magical.
“You never know what you’re going to see. One regular working day in the nursery, a school of 100-plus spotted eagle rays just swam by.”
Lessons for Down Under
When Jessica dove the Great Barrier Reef in 2008, 2011 and 2012, she was captivated by its magnitude and beauty.
“It had lots of life, both macro and mega fauna, lots of color and lots of coral diversity—which is starkly different from reefs in Florida, which have been declining since the mid-1970s,” Jessica says.
She suspects it is different today because of coral bleaching, caused primarily by prolonged exposure to high sea temperatures. Due to elevated temperatures, corals expel the algae that lives in their tissues and provides them with food and their color. Without the algae, the corals slowly starve, leaving a stark white skeleton.
“The silver lining is restoration efforts in the Caribbean and Florida have come a long way over the decades,” Jessica says. “As Australia looks toward a newfound need for coral restoration efforts, we can open an avenue of information sharing and helping.”
A major side interest of Jessica’s—almost a second job, she says—is related to her day-to-day work. As a member of the Coral Restoration Consortium, she works with other practitioners, researchers, academics and managers to collaborate on restoration.
“Only by working together can we get this field to the scale it needs to be,” she says.
Although the restoration work is incredibly tough and can be frustrating, Jessica says it has been a rewarding career.
“I enjoy the feeling that I’m doing something worthwhile,” she says. “Showing up to work means something. I have a sense of purpose.”