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A Culture of Coral Conservation

Researchers at The Florida Aquarium’s Center for Conservation are clearly jazzed about their work, and it is easy to understand why.


“We are focusing our research efforts to be tip-of-the-spear type work; we want to be able to apply our findings in real time to save coral reefs,” said Scott Graves, director of the Center, during a recent tour of the complex being developed on 20 acres of Tampa Electric Co. (TECO) land in Apollo Beach.

Graves joked the Aquarium’s young team was attempting to “save the world – no small task.” In reality, that isn’t much of an exaggeration.

The value of coral reefs, biologically and economically, is immense. Coral reefs cover only two percent of the ocean floor, yet they provide habitat for at least 25 percent of marine life. They are sometimes called the rainforests of the sea because of the biodiversity they sustain. The reefs also buffer the coasts from storms, preventing erosion.

The International Coral Reef Initiative says that the reefs generate millions of jobs and billions of dollars in revenue in more than 100 countries.

A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) study found Southeast Florida’s reefs have an asset value of $8.5 billion and generate more than 70,000 jobs. Yet reefs in many parts of the world, including Florida, are dying or are in distress. Graves said a number of factors, including disease, pollution, dredging and boat damage, are involved, but climate change is a key culprit.

“With ocean temperatures rising, corals spend more time out of their comfort zone,” he explained. The warmer water may not kill them, but the stress makes them more vulnerable to bleaching and less resilient.

The Florida Aquarium and its research partners aren’t waiting for a climate change solution. They’ve already launched a coral rescue operation. The Florida Aquarium already has constructed two corals “arks” at the Center for Conservation campus and plans to construct six more. The arks cost about $600,000 each, with the cost being split between a high-end hurricane resistant greenhouse structure and a sophisticated water filtration system that ensures the water quality corals require. The focus is entirely on research.  The arks are funded by Aquarium revenue from ticket sales and by generous donations.

The Center for Conservation, when completed, will include a sea turtle hospital with a deep tank where injured or sick turtles can be nursed backed to health before being returned to the ocean. A shark and ray research station also is in the works. Eventually, the public will be welcome to visit. Already, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has opened a youth education center on the campus near TECO’s Manatee Viewing Center.

But the focus of our tour was the arks. What is being done in these balmy rooms is staggeringly important: preserving genotypes, rearing new genotypes, and growing healthy corals that can be introduced into the wild. Collaborating with federal and state agencies, the University of Florida, the Coral Restoration Foundation and other research institutions, the Aquarium collects eggs and sperm released from coral in the wild to then produce larvae in the lab. The spawn, Graves explained, usually occurs several days after the full moon of August. Reproducing the coral larvae aids natural corals whose spawning success has plummeted as healthy corals have become scarcer.

Most of the larvae are released into the wild, but the Aquarium keeps some to try to grow the coral in its lab. It became the first institution to sexually reproduce staghorn coral in 2014. Coral reproduction and growth in the lab is vital because many coral species are becoming virtually extinct in the wild.

 

Consider the pillar coral, which is being grown in one of the arks’ tanks:

Keri O’Neil, the Aquarium’s coral nursery manager, explained that the species nearly has been extinguished in Florida by a disease known as White Plague that has rapidly attacked many kinds of corals off Florida. First detected off Fort Lauderdale in 2013, it has relentlessly marched south.

The plague threat to the slow-growing pillar coral is particularly acute.  O’Neil said pillar coral may now only exist in 100 sites off the Florida Keys. This makes spawning success unlikely because sometimes only one gender of the coral may be at a certain location.

O’Neil bluntly summed up the consequences: “You can have a male [pillar coral] off Marathon and female off Key West. When they are that far away from each other, the potential for a natural recovery is nil.”

The Aquarium team hopes eventually to introduce healthy pillar coral into its native waters. But it is a tall task to save the pillar and other corals being ravaged by the plague and other threats. Graves said researchers have to move beyond producing dozens of larvae to producing “hundreds of thousands” to begin having a significant impact. 

To make that kind of progress, The Florida Aquarium’s Center for Conservation is collaborating with Great Britain’s Horniman Museum and Gardens, which is working on “Project Coral.” This project uses techniques that induce corals to spawn in the laboratory, including artificial lighting cycles and temperature control that mimic natural seasonal changes.  By shifting the seasonal cycles in multiple aquaria, lab-kept corals can be spawned multiple times per year instead of just once.

Yet saving the reefs entails more than just working on corals. For instance, University of Florida graduate students working at the Center are studying the plight of the long-spined sea urchin. Nearly wiped out by a pathogen in the 1980s, the urchin never has recovered.

That may not seem significant to most of us, but the long-spined urchin eats the algae that grow on reefs. And Graves pointed out that coral larvae need a clean area to attach themselves to a reef, something that is difficult to find with uncontrolled algae growth.

It is powerfully clear at the Center for Conservation that saving our coral reefs is a dauntingly complex goal. Fortunately, as Graves emphasized, many other scientific and academic institutions are collaborating.

And he is encouraged by the results being achieved at The Florida Aquarium arks and other labs. He truly believes, “We are right on the cusp” of making the breakthrough that will ensure coral reefs continue to be marine miracle workers for generations to come. 

Story by Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune