The mission sounded like something out of a science fiction film. A group of sea life-loving conservationists from all over the world descended on the shores of Puerto Rico to save endangered coral in the best way they knew how, which included diving into the waters a few days after a late summer full moon.
The task: to gather the gametes (eggs and sperm) of spawning coral, bring them back to an on-land aquarium, watch fertilization, grow several young into genetically independent adults, and then release them back into the wild several years later to help restore damaged coral reefs.
The variables for this mission were extreme. Corals spawn only one time per year, during a roughly 30-minute stretch around 9:45 p.m. a few days after the August full moon. It is at that time when they release hundreds of thousands—sometimes millions—of gametes. Those gametes then fertilize in the water column (a.k.a. the water above the coral reef), stabilize and grow on the reef.
The problem: Because of reef degradation, sperm and eggs were not reaching each other, therefore not fertilizing and creating young corals.
This trip was one of many workshops put on by SECORE International, an independent non-profit focused coral reef conservation. Each workshop was conducted in collaboration with many other coral conservationists, including those in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums community. Many trips in the early 2000s were focused in Puerto Rico and done on a shoestring budget. Today’s trips are elsewhere in the Caribbean and Mexico and are more well-funded.
But back in the early 2000s, among the AZA aquarists in attendance were Justin Zimmerman, who is now aquarium supervisor at SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla., and Greg Whittaker, now animal husbandry manager at Moody Gardens in Galveston, Texas.
“Going down to Puerto Rico was one of the many workshops put on by SECORE designed to aid in sexual reproduction of corals,” said Zimmerman. “I remember showing up at our rental house and creating aquariums out of storage bins; we had to do everything on the fly, we were all ‘MacGyvering.’ We put together a lab in two or three days and had one of the most successful coral spawns, it was incredible.”
Whittaker was equally impressed.
“Moody Gardens sent down a few aquarists to the inaugural spawning workshops and tried to build a wetlab setup under a rental house in Puerto Rico,” he said. “It was a tremendous team building effort among aquarists from all over; we were using garden hoses, duct tape and zip ties. After the spawn occurred, we collected the gametes and mixed them up as if they were in their actual environment but with artificial wave activity. Then we watched them over the course of three days as they became settled larvae. These would, in time, become colonies to be transplanted back into the reef.”
The success of these workshops has been tremendous in improving understanding about sexual reproduction of corals, proving that collaboration among the coral conservation community is possible, and building the expertise needed to meet the challenges coral reefs are facing around the world and here at home.
Ask many people in the coral conservation community to tell you the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the word ‘collaboration,’ and they are likely to point to the current efforts in the AZA-Florida Reef Tract Rescue Project, or AZA FRTRP. This project was established in late 2018 to combat stony-coral tissue loss disease, a disease that is threatening the Florida Reef Tract and as many as 25 coral species within it with up to a 90 percent mortality rate.
The project is enormous and dozens of organizations, many of them AZA-accredited facilities, are working in tandem on the issue, making it arguably the largest coral conservation collaboration of all time.
Yet, as wonderful as the efforts around the AZA FRTRP are, the project would not be possible without the long history AZA facilities have with coral conservation and managing corals in managed care. In fact, collaborative efforts to save corals have been going on for more than 30 years, and continue in many areas of the world. Numerous projects involving hardworking aquarists from the AZA, have set the stage for AZA FRTRP success.
Pete Mohan has a helpful historical perspective to this end. While he retired from the Akron Zoo in Akron, Ohio, in mid-2018, he still works part-time at the Zoo as a consultant for aquatic systems and director of animal operations. He remembers diving in the Florida reefs in the mid-70s and just how pristine they were at that time. After researching oyster reef studies for his master’s degree in the late 70s/early 80s, he joined SeaWorld of Ohio (which, today, is no longer in operation) in the late 80s and remembers the formation of the AZA’s Aquatic Invertebrate TAG in the late 80s/early 90s.
“We had to really start networking back then because that was a time when there were a lot of new aquariums being built around the country,” Mohan remembered. “Collaborations between us built up organically and became even more commonplace.”
It was then that the coral community was starting to communicate more about husbandry, reproduction, and stewardship. Over time, AZA aquarists interested in corals would gather in small groups at conferences and by the late 90s/early 2000s, formal collaborations—like SECORE’s workshops—started popping up.
Since then, numerous collaborations have taken place to help save coral reefs around the world. Many are starting now while others are still underway.
For more than 10 years, The Florida Aquarium in Tampa, Fla.,—along with many other AZA-accredited facilities and other research organizations—has been working in tandem with the Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) on a coral spawning project in the Florida Keys focused on the restoration of staghorn coral.
Every summer, the Aquarium and its partners travel down to the CRF’s coral tree nursery to conduct research and collect the spawn. They then take the spawn to The Florida Aquarium so the settled larvae can grow in a safe environment.
“We were doing it at the Aquarium until around 2016 when we opened our Center for Conservation,” said Keri O’Neil, senior coral scientist at The Florida Aquarium’s Center for Conservation, located on Apollo Beach, Fla., about 15 miles south of the Aquarium. “When the corals spawn in the ocean releasing sperm and eggs in the water, we collect it and on land bring them together so the eggs get fertilized.The fertilized eggs settle to the bottom and become coral larvae.”
This process is important because many corals are not reproducing sexually in the wild—there are too few males and too few females left to find each other to mate and create unique coral offspring. Over time, the collaboration to help corals reproduce has resulted in incredible results.
“In 2019, we released 3,000 new, genetic individuals of staghorn coral back into the waters of Florida,” said O’Neil.
The Atlantic pillar coral is a notoriously difficult species of coral to breed and keep alive. These facts are today made even more concerning because pillar coral is being impacted by disease on the Florida Reef Tract. To help this species, The Florida Aquarium and the Horniman Museum and Gardens in London got together in 2017 to help save this species.
“A lot of our partners had been monitoring the population of pillar coral and noticing how quickly it was dying from disease,” said O’Neil. “We were taking corals from sick colonies and sick sites and treating the disease and trying to stabilize them.”
With the help from NOAA researchers and other scientific partners, the corals were treated, and since then, the collaboration has helped them even spawn.
“Dr. Jamie Craggs at the Horniman Museum in London developed a technique to induce corals to spawn in an aquarium,” she said. “He’d done this successfully with many species of Pacific corals, so we took his technique and adapted it for use on Atlantic pillar coral—for them to spawn in the tanks at the Center for Conservation.”
The process wasn’t easy; it took more than two years to construct the proper equipment and systems to mimic the exact natural cues the corals would need to spawn in managed care. But it worked, and now, once per year, pillar coral gametes are created and larva are settled inside the Center for Conservation in Florida.
“We have six baby pillar corals from our 2018 coral spawning, and 11 from 2019,” said O’Neil.“ Considering we only have 40 genetic individual pillar corals in the wild, now we have an extra 17, and eventually they will go back into the reefs.
“This is one of the most inspiring projects I’ve ever worked on. We’ve made a difference. I’m comfortable saying that because of this project, this coral will not go extinct in the state of Florida.”
Commenting on the many, many collaborations in coral conservation, O’Neil doesn’t hesitate.
“The coral conservation world is fairly small and close-knit,” she said. “Those who understand how much trouble coral reefs are in realize that supporting each other and collaborating is the only way we are going to save our coral reefs.”
Katie Morell is a writer based in Sausalito, Calif.