A Critical Mission to Restore Florida's Imperiled Reef Tract


A Critical Mission to Restore Florida's Imperiled Reef Tract

The Florida Aquarium’s efforts to save the imperiled Florida Reef Tract involves customized laboratories, innovative research and meticulous attention to detail. It also requires backbreaking work, as divers on a recent mission to The Florida Keys can testify.


The Aquarium led a multi-agency conservation mission to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to “release” and distribute to underwater nurseries more than 3,000 healthy staghorn corals to aid the Reef Tract, which runs from Martin County to the Dry Tortugas.


Some of the lab-raised corals were placed in human-made coral “nurseries,” where they were hung by fishing line from PVC “trees.” Surrounded by clean, free-flowing water, corals hung from such trees grow rapidly and eventually can be attached to a natural reef. Other corals were outplanted directly to a reef Keri O’Neil, The Florida Aquarium’s senior coral scientist, detailed the physical challenge.


Each of the individual corals is tied to a tree or secured to a reef “by hand,” said O’Neil. There is no quick or easy way to do this. “The real limiting factor is the manpower it takes. It is very labor intensive.” It’s not glamorous. Indeed, the coral is connected to an offshore reef with “two-part epoxy or Portland Cement.”


A diver outplants a staghorn coral colony by use of epoxy to a rock structure in the Florida Keys

The support logistics also were daunting. Aquarium Vice President of Animal Care and Health Tim Binder oversaw this part of the effort, having to ensure “staff rotation, supplies, lodging, transportation, and boat captain assignments” and other details were adequately attended.

Divers returned to shore exhausted but also exhilarated by the significance of their work. This was, after all, a groundbreaking venture. While outplantings are not new, they usually are done with fragments of coral that have been split apart, meaning they have the same genetics.

A closeup photo of tiny baby staghorn corals grown at The Florida Aquarium's Apollo Beach Conservation Campus.However, O’Neil said, “These were unique individuals raised from larvae” at The Aquarium’s Center for Conservation complex in Apollo Beach, which has two greenhouse-like arks designed specifically to raise coral.


In 2014, The Florida Aquarium became the first institution to raise a staghorn larva successfully. Its progress in raising coral since then has been remarkable. O’Neil recounted, “We had just one in 2014. In 2017, we raised 116. And now we are releasing 3,200.”


Those numbers may still be small compared to the hundreds of thousands of new corals needed to replenish The Florida Reef Tract, which has lost more than 90 percent of its staghorn and elkhorn coral because of disease, pollution, climate change, boat damage, development, and other factors.


But the Aquarium’s in-lab staghorn production shows how quickly advancements can be made when resources are committed to conservation. And, The Florida Aquarium is utterly committed to the cause. It has plans for eight greenhouse coral arks at the Center for Conservation, which also has a brand-new Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Center turtle hospital and an education facility. The complex is funded through ticket sales and donations.

The Florida Aquarium's Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Center on a sunny Florida Day


While it is critical to address pollution and other threats to the corals, the lab work being conducted by The Florida Aquarium and other institutions also is essential.


O’Neil explained, “Having an on-land genetic archive allows us to learn about the reproduction of these species so that we can produce thousands of offspring and repopulate The Florida Keys in the future.”

The lab work also offers a chance to develop corals that “may be able to withstand future ocean conditions and become more heat resistant and disease tolerant.” Raising healthy corals in a laboratory is challenging. Precise conditions are needed for the coral larvae to survive. Light, water quality and food must be monitored religiously.


A tank full of baby staghorn coral being grown on racks in the sun to outplant on Florida's imperiled coral reefs.

However, the Aquarium staff’s work demonstrates that lab-raised corals can be produced in significant numbers and can provide a source of healthy corals for our damaged reefs.


The Aquarium now is working with Great Britain’s Horniman Museum and Gardens on techniques that will induce corals to spawn in the laboratory. The Aquarium team also applauded the recent announcement that the Association of Zoos and Aquariums is becoming part of the Florida Reef Tract rescue effort. The Florida Aquarium is a member of that elite organization association, which can mobilize the resources of other top aquariums and zoological institutions.


It is notable that all the institutions involved are collaborating. The focus is on achieving results, not obtaining credit. Still, The Florida Aquarium team should take pride in its pioneering methods to save our invaluable coral reefs.


As Binder said, “There is no organization doing what we are doing… we can have an immediate impact on the Florida Reef Tract.” 

*Research activities occurred within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and under permit. 



Former Opinion Editor, The Tampa Tribune




Vice President of Animal Care and Welfare, The Florida Aquarium



Senior Coral Scientist, The Florida Aquarium 


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