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Coral are building blocks of marine habitats and oxygen-giving marine organisms.
Coral reefs cover 2% of the ocean floor but are home to 25% of marine life in the ocean. Coral reefs are among our most highly productive ecosystems, providing us with an incredible number of benefits, both for leisure and livelihood, such as: beautiful diving and snorkeling, protection of our coasts and habitats, and acting as nurseries for both commercial and recreational fisheries. They also provide critical habitat for other species such as sea turtles, dolphins and sharks — all key species for maintaining healthy resilient ecosystems.
Of all the coral reefs worldwide, estimates from as far back as 2003 suggest that 27 percent of them have already been negatively impacted—11 percent of that number has already been completely lost, and another 16 percent degraded beyond recovery. The Florida Reef Tract is the third largest barrier reef in the world, running 360 miles along the Florida Keys, and it is one of the many of precious ecosystems upon which we depend here in Florida. Florida's coral reefs are disappearing faster than scientists had forecasted. The issues are many and complex—from acidification and pollution to climate change and boat impacts.
We are learning the process of reproducing staghorn coral to increase the genetic diversity of this species and to ultimately create more resilient coral reefs. To date, we have learned how to collect eggs and sperm and, in our labs, create embryos that develop into free-swimming larvae. Many larvae are released back into the sea; the rest we settle in aquatic systems which are designed to help them grow into new colonies. The first and longest-living sexually reproduced staghorn colony under managed care began to grow in 2014 at our Aquarium. Our urgent mission is to replicate and ramp up this process.
We are building coral arks at our Center for Conservation at Apollo Beach. These living labs are where we grow critical species such as staghorn and pillar coral, as well as the long-spined urchin, which are all very important to create and maintain healthy reef ecosystems. Also, here we study the diseases affecting wild coral populations through samples of coral we have rescued.
We are expanding internationally with the National Aquarium of Cuba (NAC). Cuba is home to the most pristine reefs in the Caribbean, which provide us with a model for our restoration work. In turn, NAC is learning to be more proactive in caring for its reefs should they begin to decline. Thus, we have created an immensely beneficial partnership whereby NAC participates in our coral projects, and we are helping them build their own underwater coral nursery and coral ark.
Cryopreservation — or freezing of gametes— is critical to safeguard against the loss of genetic diversity and allows us to work with this threatened species throughout the year. South-East Zoo Alliance for Reproduction & Conservation is our partner in this effort.
The future of our coral work is exciting and expands daily as our Tampa community and scientific partners rally with us. Our partners include:
We are expanding our research efforts through the construction of the coral arks at our Center for Conservation at Apollo Beach. Please support this urgent effort.
Phone: (813) 273-4000