The numbers were staggering. In 2018, with corals along the Florida Reef Tract in crisis because of stony coral tissue loss disease, Jennifer Moore, the protected coral recovery coordinator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Southeast Regional Office, began calculating how many corals needed to be collected to allow for a genetically diverse population to one day repopulate the reef. Knowing she’d rather have too many than too few, she determined that they needed to collect up to 200 of 15 high-priority species. “That is 3,000 corals,” she said. “It’s a lot.”
Each of those corals, she further determined, would need to have up to a square foot of space to thrive. “We did all the math and we’re like whoa, we are never going to have that with our existing partners,” she said.
She talked with colleagues in partner organizations about who could help, and Lisa Gregg, programs and policy coordinator with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and a member of the state’s Coral Rescue Team, suggested reaching out to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
"We basically put out this plea, and we said we need your help, and we can’t give you anything for it,” said Moore. “It was so amazing to see the response we’ve gotten.”
To date, more than 60 partners have banded together to help with the AZA Florida Reef Tract Rescue Project (AZA FRTRP), including numerous zoos and aquariums, government agencies, universities and others. It’s a groundbreaking effort in its size and scope, and one that blends both crisis efforts with strategic management plans for the future.
As the many partners work together, people like Beth Firchau, AZA FRTRP coordinator, are watching and learning. Because looking ahead, she expects that AZA-accredited facilities will have a more important role than ever in driving and supporting conservation efforts.
“With environmental crises coming with every news cycle, we can’t expect our government agencies to handle it all. We have to pitch in,” said Firchau. “Aquarium conservation in general needs to take notice, because the trend is more crises, less resources, and increased need for directed, well-orchestrated response efforts.”
AZA is no stranger to working with government agencies and non-profits in wildlife management and conservation efforts. In the past, AZA-accredited facilities have collaborated in projects involving the red and Mexican wolf, black-footed ferrets, whooping crane, the California condor, Wyoming toad, and numerous other species.
Dr. Christopher Kuhar, chair of the board of AZA and executive director of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo in Cleveland, Ohio, said zoos and aquariums are uniquely positioned to help conservation efforts, because they have expertise, experience, physical space, and a strong network.
“I think the biggest asset that AZA has is the strength of all of the combined member organizations. So when AZA organizations really focus their efforts, there’s a tremendous amount of resources that can be used to address a particular conservation topic,” said Kuhar.
Steve Olson, AZA’s senior vice president of government affairs, said the organization has learned a number of lessons from past partnerships in conservation. First and foremost is the value of relationships. It’s critical, he said, for AZA members to invest in building relationships with organizations doing conservation work in the field, whether they’re government, non-government, or even other zoos, so that when a challenge arises, everyone in the equation knows where to turn early on.
“If you want us to get involved, and you’re seeing a problem coming down the way, let us get involved early so we can do the planning,” Olson said.
For Sarah Fangman, superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary with NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, these resources and relationships have been invaluable for the coral project.
“AZA brings tremendous capacity in terms of the ability to hold, keep, and maintain corals. Many of the species that are being affected by this and have been rescued and turned over to the capable hands of our AZA partners have never been in managed care before. So the aquarists that are caring for them are on the front lines of this disease response, and they’re using every one of their best skills to help keep those corals alive, and maybe even help propagate them,” she said.
“The problem is daunting, but we are committed to not letting this come to the worst possible conclusion,” said Fangman.
In order to become a part of large-scale conservation efforts in the future, zoos and aquariums must let the public know about the work they’re doing now. That work should be a part of all of their messaging, and not an afterthought, said Roger Germann, president and chief executive officer of The Florida Aquarium in Tampa, Fla. The Florida Aquarium has been focusing on the reef tract for several years, and its conservation work is at the center of everything the facility does, said Germann.
“We are dramatically talking to our public and our guests and we are saying that everything we do here is based in conservation. Even when you walk in our doors and you pay for a ticket, proceeds from that ticket go to conservation and saving wildlife. When you’re here and you’re looking at an exhibit, we’re going to have a conservation message with action items, not just inspiration,” he said. “It really truly is going to take a conservation village in order to save this reef.”
A facility in Ohio might not be the first place you’d expect to find coral, but Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Powell, Ohio, has been involved in coral conservation efforts for years. So when the opportunity arose to participate in the Florida Reef Tract Rescue Project, Doug Warmolts, who is vice president of animal care, didn’t hesitate.
“We have about a 1,500-square-foot warehouse about a mile from the Zoo, physically separated, and we set it up with holding systems for the reef track corals,” he said.
Warmolts said the organization had the financial wherewithal to step up because the facility allots a portion of its annual budget to conservation programs. Those efforts resonate with visitors, who in turn are generous with their donations, which enables more conservation work.
“We have a lot of very loyal and passionate donors that love the stories,” said Warmolts. “We bring them in, we give them tours, we get them involved, we give them that special access behind the scenes, get them excited about what we’re doing, and then we can start supporting some of these projects through philanthropic donations to support the Zoo’s conservation.”
He adds that conservation initiatives like the coral projects allow the Zoo to educate guests about things they can do to make a difference for the environment, beginning in their own backyard. “Every river, every stream, every lake leads to the ocean. We all have a connection, and it is important that we care about that,” he said.
One of the most powerful aspects of the coral rescue project, said Andrea Densham, senior director, policy and advocacy with John G. Shedd Aquarium’s Daniel P. Haerther Center for Conservation and Research in Chicago, Ill., has been the way it has united different people.
“It’s brought together folks who are doing basic science as well as applied science. It’s bringing together state and local agencies. It’s bringing together parts of the federal government that haven’t worked together. It’s even bringing together republicans and democrats,” she said.
And within zoos and aquariums around the country, messages about the coral project aim to educate and inspire countless visitors. They, in turn, have the power to reach out to their elected officials and urge them to pass legislation that protects coral, and emphasize the need for increased funding for coral conservation programs.
“It’s a multifactorial process that’s going to make it happen, and it’s really mobilizing our supporters at the front and using science to do that,” said Densham. “We have to use science as our first and most important driver as we move forward.”
The coral situation is dire. But the work that’s being done to collectively address the challenges is inspiring. Moore said it’s important to be able to take a step back and take pride in the progress that’s being made, thanks to this concerted group effort.
Even during the recent COVID-19 pandemic, with the threat of staff illness, facility closures to the public, and reduction in resources, AZA FRTRP coral husbandry teams banded together. Gathering strength through collaboration, and fortified by their combined expertise and passion, coral holding facilities are maintaining optimum care of rescued corals and ensuring that the corals were not affected by the pandemic’s challenges.
Far before the global health crisis, the concerted efforts of the AZA FRTRP were noticed. The stony coral tissue loss disease observed in the reefs off Florida has now been reported across the Caribbean. In Europe, similar efforts to address various critical coral reef issues across the globe are being organized. These efforts are watching the AZA project, reaching out for support and using the AZA FRTRP as an example when building other programs.
“We have done so much in such a little time with few resources that we have to be able to celebrate those successes while trying to address all of the problems that get thrown at us,” Moore said. “I think we have to show that we’ve been resilient in being able to address those problems, and that is what gives me hope for the future. We’ve got the right people doing this. We just need to be able to do more.”
When Firchau considers the efforts put forth on the reef tract project, she’s proud of what’s been done. And yet, she said, there’s so much more to do to make a lasting impact. AZA-accredited facilities will be a vital part of keeping up that momentum.
"We cannot do coral conservation without aquariums and zoos involved. Things are happening way too quickly," she said. "What we're doing now with the Florida Reef Tract coral rescue is an example of what our approaches need to be in the future.”
Kate Silver is a writer based in Chicago, Ill.