It started as a mysterious disease with no clear pattern of infection. Soon, it went rampant, baffling even the most seasoned scientists and researchers. Regardless of what it was or where it came from, the evidence was clear: a new disease was decimating Florida’s coral reefs at an alarming rate. Something drastic needed to be done.
An emergency task force–the Florida Coral Rescue Plan–took shape, an unprecedented initiative to address an unprecedented problem. Partner organizations including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Florida Fish and Wildlife, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the National Park Service, and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, ten response teams, a steering committee, and an executive coordination team are in charge of rescuing and propagating corals from North America’s largest bank reef. The goal is to save the delicate Florida Reef Tract from stony coral tissue loss disease by rescuing a cross section of healthy corals, caring for them in land-based nurseries and holding facilities, propagating them, and then eventually outplanting them back onto the reef.
Coral reefs support over a quarter of all marine life at some point during their life cycle, but these fragile ecosystems are heading towards extinction. In the last three decades, Florida’s waters have lost more than 90 percent of their corals in certain areas. In a matter of years, stony coral tissue loss disease moved very rapidly, attacking over 96,000 acres of the Florida Reef Tract and surrounding Caribbean areas.
“With other diseases we always saw abatements during cooler temperatures, but we haven’t seen any kind of pattern with this disease. Every time we think we know what it’s going to do, it does the unexpected,” said Lisa Gregg, program and policy coordinator with the Fish and Wildlife Commission, who is also a co-leader of the Coral Rescue Team for this project.
There are several steps in the reef restoration loop. It starts with gathering a diverse collection of coral colonies, keeping them healthy, and monitoring their growth. Then the corals need to have their genetic varieties tested for resilience to factors like disease, climate change, and environmental stress to predict how they can eventually be outplanted onto reefs.
To begin, scientists identified more than 20 coral species susceptible to stony coral tissue loss disease. Of those, they narrowed it down to 15 that were considered high priority, taking into consideration factors like their conservation status, levels of abundance, and overall importance to the reef as foundational species. The original goal was to collect 200 corals of each species to ensure at least 50 unique individuals. By March 2020, they were about halfway to their 3,000 specimen target, which was purposefully over-ambitious.
“The problem is that we didn’t, at the time, have the genetic tools to tell individuals apart for most of these corals. We’re developing that now. But we couldn’t wait before we started collecting, so to hedge our bets, we oversampled,” said Jennifer Moore, protected coral recovery coordinator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Southeast Regional Office, who is the other co-leader of the Coral Rescue Team alongside Lisa Gregg.
The collections team partnered with local dive shops on day trips, keeping coral specimens in coolers, then bringing them back on land for cleaning and processing. They quickly learned that collecting under this system would take three years, so they changed course. They moved onto live-aboard dive boats for three-day expeditions, collecting corals in large tanks that could hold 350 specimens, and processing them at the same time.
During the pilot phase, it became apparent that everyone underestimated the space it would take to house 3,000 corals.
“We reached out to AZA because we realized this is an amazing network of skilled, highly professional aquariums across the country that may be able to help us out,” said Moore. In November 2019, AZA joined the Coral Rescue Team, and the Florida Reef Tract Rescue Project was formed.
Knowing what they didn’t know and then being able to learn as they go has been key from the start. Through the experiences of AZA coral holding facilities and their teams it was learned by breaking up the numerous partner organizations into teams and small areas of expertise, the project could surpass the typically slow pace of similar academic studies.
“We’ve worked very hard to curate a community that’s very open and to share information as soon as we get it. Often, in science, you don’t publish your failures, both because it’s not encouraged by journals but also, perhaps, out of personal pride. One of the unique things about our response is that we’ve shared what’s going well but also what’s really not going well, which has been essential in moving us forward so quickly,” said Maurizio Martinelli, the Florida coral disease response coordinator at Florida Sea Grant.
“We’ve tried to have this be as organic as possible, not top down. We do have two leadership bodies that try to provide high-level guidance and goals, but a lot of the work is coming from the bottom up. That’s been instrumental in getting so many people on board because they can see that their thoughts, recommendations, and ideas are incorporated. It’s a model that can be replicated in conservation in general,” said Martinelli, adding that AZA has been especially good with communicating best practices.
As of April 2020, the collected corals are being housed by a number of partners, including 19 AZA-accredited facilities. The Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota, Fla., is currently holding approximately 75 rescued coral colonies in three systems. Mote Aquarium already had several live coral displays, so the staff had expertise in live coral husbandry. Two of their holding systems are visible to the public, with signage highlighting the rescue project and Mote’s involvement.
“Anyone who has ever cared for coral knows it’s no easy task, but, it just makes sense to tap into AZA’s nationwide wealth of knowledge to come together for Florida’s coral reef. AZA members also reach a large audience–the more awareness we can bring to our audiences about reefs in general and the threats they face around the globe, the better chance we have of creating action and change,” said Stephanie Kettle, public relations manager at Mote.
Disney’s The Seas in Bay Lake, Fla., which has been involved in coral conservation for decades, is contributing through the Disney Conservation Fund.
“When we heard about the crisis facing the Florida Coral Reef Tract, we naturally answered the call to see how we could not only provide support, but also join together with our local AZA institutions to help make a meaningful difference for species so important for healthy ocean ecosystems, resilient coastlines, and our economy,” said Dr. Mark Penning, vice president of animals, science and environment at Disney Parks. “I encourage any AZA zoo or aquarium to get involved where they can. We can all share the story of the Florida coastline crisis and encourage behavior change that will make a difference.”
AZA-accredited facilities play a critical role in the success of this coral rescue program, but it goes beyond providing space and care. AZA aquariums are operating as coral gene banks and developing breeding stock. The immediate goal is replenishing the damaged reef in approximately three years, but the hope is to have a genetically diverse and robust collection of coral available to outplant in case of future environmental disasters.
“Success for us is still trying to crack a lot of the codes and reproduce coral in human care. The greater success is knowing at what point we can put it at scale back in the water. We are all collectively making great strides,” said Roger Germann, president and chief executive officer at The Florida Aquarium in Tampa, Fla.
In August 2019, The Florida Aquarium was the first to successfully reproduce Atlantic coral in human care. Germann said he would like to see people from AZA’s coral holding facilities visit to learn more about coral genetics to help boost the reproductive success of this project.
“The disease on the Florida Reef Tract really made us have to think outside the box and outside the norm of what we usually do. There was no way Florida would be able to do this on its own,” said Gregg. “AZA is essentially working on an extensive training program to teach people how to take care of Caribbean corals based on their experience so far with the project. There will be people from the larger coral restoration community worldwide that will be chomping at the bit to take this training and learn from AZA.”
The Florida Reef Tract Rescue Project created an unprecedented collaborative response to an unprecedented environmental problem. In a few years, everyone hopes to be discussing this project in terms of its unprecedented results for a thriving reef system.
Top Photo: © NOVA Southeastern University
Middle Photo: © Adventure Aquarium
Bottom Photo: © Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Hillary Richard is a writer based in Bloomfield, N.J.