MIAMI (CBSMiami/AP) – The United Arab Emirates government has granted a $3.5 million gift to help kick off a major coral reef restoration program in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

The grant, announced Wednesday by officials of United Way of Collier and the Keys, is the first funding commitment of the $100 million Mission: Iconic Reefs program announced last December by The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its Keys sanctuary.

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The program, to be funded by public and private resources, calls for restoring seven iconic coral reef sites off the Keys consisting of nearly 3 million square feet of the Florida Reef Tract, about the size of 52 football fields.

The effort is likely to take two decades and is to be accomplished in two phases, Sanctuary officials said.

Since the 1970s, tropical cyclones, heat-induced coral bleaching, cold snaps and disease events have reduced coral coverage in the Keys.

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Over the past 15 years, pioneering restoration efforts involving growing and transplanting corals have proven successful in the Keys, setting the stage for the large-scale restoration effort.

Running from Key Largo to Key West, the Sanctuary includes Carysfort Reef, Horseshoe Reef, Cheeca Rocks, Sombrero Reef, Newfound Harbor, Looe Key Reef and Eastern Dry Rocks.

The $3.5 million coral restoration gift is part of a $10 million pledge from the UAE to communities in Florida for recovery activities following Hurricane Irma. The United Way helped to secure the UAE financial gift for the Keys coral reef project.

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