The facility in an Orlando, Fla., industrial park is unassuming from the outside, but once inside, its massive mission becomes obvious. The 2,000 square foot, state-of-the-art Florida Coral Rescue Center (FCRC) is the largest coral nursery in the country that is dedicated to the rescue, propagation, and rearing of corals from the Florida Reef Tract (FRT).
The 360-mile reef tract, which extends from Florida’s Miami Dade County to the Dry Tortugas, is being ravaged by stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD); and millions of corals have been affected since the fast-moving bacterial disease first appeared in 2014.
“It has up to a 100 percent mortality rate at some reefs,” said Jennifer Moore, protected coral recovery coordinator, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and co-lead of the Florida Coral Rescue Team. “A healthy coral reef should have 20 to 40 percent live corals, and the FRT is now below two percent.”
A unique collaboration between the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, SeaWorld, Disney, and the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida has resulted in the creation of the Rescue Center and the leveraging of wide-ranging expertise and resources to tackle this catastrophic issue.
Prior to AZA’s involvement, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), NOAA Fisheries, and several other entities realized they needed a coordinated approach to the coral disease problem. They created the Florida Coral Rescue Team to be able to gene bank corals for restoration and develop a Florida coral rescue plan to guide coral collections. The goals of the developed plan are to rescue healthy corals and hold them in land-based facilities; preserve the genetic diversity of disease susceptible coral species; and propagate them for future restoration.
In order to implement this ambitious plan, the FWC, on behalf of the Coral Rescue Team, reached out to AZA for assistance in August 2018.
“We needed AZA because we did not have enough space, facilities, or husbandry expertise to do gene banking on a meaningful scale,” said Lisa Gregg, program and policy coordinator, FWC, and Moore’s co-lead on the Florida Coral Rescue Team. “We needed help and recognized that AZA has been doing this for years.”
According to Mark Penning, a member of AZA’s board of directors and vice president, Disney’s Animals, Science and Environment, AZA understood the reasoning behind the request for help and willingly agreed to play a role, creating the AZA Florida Reef Tract Rescue Project (AZA-FRTRP).
“It is unusual for a wildlife management agency to deem a threat so severe that they remove several species out of their natural habitat in order to protect them, with the hope of replacing them when the threat has passed or is under control. They understand that hundreds of species of marine life depend on corals for their existence, and this disease could result in the collapse of the whole reef system. Under the guidance of the AZA, it makes sense for the group of resource management agencies, zoological facilities, and funding organizations to work together to tackle this issue affecting corals. The AZA members have the facilities and the know-how to safely house these species, and the ability to share the story with their constituents,” said Penning.
Jim Kinsler, curator of aquariums, SeaWorld, and the FCRC facility manager, explained the serendipitous nature of the Center’s creation within the AZA-Florida Reef Tract Rescue Project and the Coral Rescue Plan.
“Once the different partners were identified, we all came to the table with proposals on where we could keep the coral. We knew that World Wide Corals, an aquaculture and retail business, happened to be selling their equipment and freeing up some valuable space. It was such an awesome plug and play opportunity—all we had to do was take over their lease and move in. The timing was incredible.”
The division of labor regarding the Center reflects the unprecedented nature of this collaboration. The Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida, a regular funder of marine conservation work, handled the start-up costs and serves as the business manager.
“We agreed to purchase all of the equipment and be the lessee of the facility, and we worked closely with Sea World and Disney to get the facility ready for this kind of work with some electrical and HVAC updates,” said Andrew Walker, president and chief executive officer. They continue to handle all purchasing requests and communicate with the other partners on financial matters.
Disney provides three years of operating support through the Disney Conservation Fund; and SeaWorld staff provides oversight and manages the facility, which includes monitoring the corals, addressing periodic health issues, and conducting research. Given the number of players and moving parts, the speed with which the plans came together is impressive: the Foundation bought World Wide Corals’ equipment in mid-December 2019 and the first rescued corals arrived at the FCRC in March 2020.
“Partnerships are key in the fight to save our corals,” said FWC Executive Director, Eric Sutton. “Working alongside AZA, SeaWorld, Disney, and the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida has made the Florida Coral Rescue Center an invaluable tool for restoration of Florida’s coral reef.”
Because the rescued Florida corals are new to long-term human care, there was a steep learning curve on the part of the aquarists involved in creating a healthy environment at the FCRC. Fortunately, the cooperative nature of the AZA-FRTRP has been instrumental in making decisions about everything from the placement and feeding of the corals to optimal lighting and water flow for different species. The Center is one of over 20 facilities (AZA and non-AZA institutions) across the country that are currently holding almost 2,000 Florida Reef Tract corals, and its collection of 753 housed in 18 large tanks is the largest by far.
“We know the corals’ natural environment, and we’ve made a lot of educated guesses,” said Aaron Gavin, SeaWorld coral biologist who works at the Center. “We do a weekly call with the other facilities and we’re able to have a conversation about what we’re seeing, and what we’re having success with. It’s been a huge learning opportunity for all of the holders.”
Gregg agrees, and emphasizes AZA’s value to the project. “AZA staff exhibit such a level of professionalism when dealing with non-AZA facilities. They’ve provided leadership and structure for the project and helped to develop project guidance such as biosecurity and system preparation requirements. When you work with people who think and are comfortable living outside the box—like staff in AZA facilities—they’re not afraid to try new things and not afraid to talk about their successes and their failures, so people can learn. Florida corals have not ever been widely held in managed care, so it has been challenging working with these species. AZA is blazing new trails and the information exchange is huge.”
In addition to financial support, Disney has been generous with the talent and expertise of staff members like Dr. Andy Stamper, conservation science manager, Disney’s Animal, Science and Environment. “As a veterinarian, I specialize in aquatic medicine, and I help to coordinate diagnostic efforts at the Center and throughout the network [AZA-FRTRP],” he said. “I’m coordinating the treatment formulary and addressing health issues. We hadn’t housed Atlantic corals before, and we had to learn how to take care of them very quickly. We have to figure out how to breed them so we have lots of offspring to put back out there.”
Staff at the participating organizations are unanimous in their feeling that this collaboration has been free of the politics and egos that have the potential to derail or slow a project down.
“You have two cultures coming together—the zoo and aquarium culture and the wildlife biologist culture, which includes veterinarians and biologists—everyone has the same goal and are learning each other’s perspectives and language,” said Stamper. “Communication and coordination have been very good, especially given how fast we’ve had to enact this. I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by how everyone’s been rowing in the same direction.”
Kinsler agrees that the common goal keeps everyone on track. “Once we got up and running, it’s been smooth sailing. We make sure we’re accountable to our partners. We’re all aligned in this and the focus is on the corals.”
Though it is likely that the ultimate benefits of the coral recovery, gene banking, and reef restoration will take some time, the partners are encouraged by each bit of progress they make and everything they learn.
“Considering everything we set out to do—[the Center just] completed year one and it’s been a complete success,” said Kinsler. “Corals can be very, very sensitive, and we have 753 pieces that are surviving, thriving, and growing. Some have even produced offspring, which is very positive.”
The collaborative nature of this project is a perfect illustration of “the whole being greater than the sum of its parts,” with every institution committed to its role in addressing this daunting challenge.
“Working together is the sharing of ideas to move forward for a solution,” said Penning. “We are proud to support efforts to rescue and protect Florida’s coral reefs and work with others who share our passion so we can save nature together and make a difference.”
Hero photo credit: ©SeaWorld
Mary Ellen Collins is a writer based in St. Petersburg, Fla.