Here’s What Scientists Are Doing To Save Florida’s Coral Reef Before It’s Too Late

Kevin Davenport, an aquarist and coral biologist, feeds krill to growing corals at a coral culture and rehabilitation warehouse in Orlando, Florida, on September 13.

Kevin Davenport, an aquarist and coral biologist, feeds krill to growing corals at a coral culture and rehabilitation warehouse in Orlando, Florida, on September 13.

Zack Wittman for NPR

Inside a nondescript warehouse in Orlando, Florida, filled with 300-gallon aquariums, a sophisticated LED lighting system is set on a timer to mimic the cycle of the sun and moon in Key West, some 300 miles away.

This space, which has been described as Noah’s Ark for corals, is a key part of the strategy to help the survival of the only barrier reef in the continental US.

The reef is one of the most threatened environmental jewels in the country. It is the third largest barrier reef in the world and stretches more than 350 miles off the Florida coast from the city of Stuart to Dry Tortugas National Park. It is a diverse ecosystem, a tourist attraction, and helps protect the coastline from storm surges, providing billions of dollars in economic benefits.

Justin Zimmerman, SeaWorld supervisor for the Florida Coral Rescue Center in Orlando.

Justin Zimmerman, SeaWorld supervisor for the Florida Coral Rescue Center in Orlando.

Zack Wittman for NPR

Over the past half century, reefs have lost 95% of the coral that once covered them due to development, human activity, and climate change. The loss of corals, tiny and ancient marine animals, has prompted scientists, activists and government officials to come up with a plan for their long-term survival.

A Noah’s Ark for choir

Hundreds of corals of 18 different species were collected in the Florida Keys and brought here, to the Florida Coral Rescue Center, for safekeeping. With near-perfect conditions, the corals thrived and began to reproduce.

Most corals spawn at night several days after a “full moon” mimicked by the lighting system.

When that happens, Justin Zimmerman, a supervisor here, says his staff spends all night watching the corals. “Your eggs and sperm float, so they float to the top,” he says. “We can collect them, let them fertilize, and then we’ll settle the baby corals, the larvae after they develop, in little mosaics.”

Baby corals increase the genetic diversity of species that face myriad threats to their long-term survival. That’s why three years ago, SeaWorld, in partnership with Disney and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Foundation, opened this facility.

Multitude of threats

The most recent threat to the reef has been stony coral tissue loss disease, says Andy Bruckner, a researcher at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. “That probably killed more coral in Florida than any other event,” he says. “It affects these large rock corals that grow much more slowly and are more important in terms of building the framework, the structure, that these other corals live on.”

There is now some hope that the disease has peaked and may subside. But the damage it has done is substantial, adding to the devastation that has left many vibrant and colorful reefs that are now largely gray and lifeless.

Scientists and divers agree: Florida’s coral reefs have declined dramatically since the 1960s and 1970s. Bruckner says there is no single irrefutable piece of evidence responsible for the devastation. There are local stresses, such as damage to reefs from ship anchors or irresponsible divers and fishermen. There are regional problems, including poor water quality and overfishing. “And the global stressor,” he says, referring to climate change. “That’s probably the No. 1 factor that’s affecting the reefs,” he says, and it could ultimately be responsible for their demise if we don’t take action to address it.

The corals are grown in meticulously controlled saltwater tanks at the Florida Coral Rescue Center.

The corals are grown in meticulously controlled saltwater tanks at the Florida Coral Rescue Center.

Zack Wittman for NPR

Ocean warming causes heat stress, which leads to bleaching events and makes corals more susceptible to disease. Another concern is ocean acidification from the increasing amount of carbon dioxide absorbed from the atmosphere.

critical action

The steep decline of Florida’s barrier reef and growing threats to its long-term survival have mobilized a broad coalition of activists, scientists, and government officials.

“These are the only reefs like this that we have in the continental United States,” says Sarah Fangman, superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which includes nearly all of Florida’s reefs. “We don’t have a spare Florida reef system. So we have to do something.”

For the past three years, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has spearheaded a project to restore several of the best-known coral reefs in the Florida Keys. Known as Mission: Iconic Reefs, it is an effort involving environmental groups, research institutions and government agencies. Now, Fangman is pushing for the adoption of a new set of regulations, a “Restoration Plan” to expand protections for the reefs.

Measurements are critical, he says, but he is realistic. No matter what measures are taken, it will not now be possible to restore the reefs to the way they used to be. “Those conditions no longer exist,” she says. “So what we need to do is give our corals a chance to thrive and be resilient under current conditions.”

a sense of optimism

Among those heavily involved in coral reef restoration, there is an almost surprising sense of optimism. Since 2007, a Florida Keys-based group, the Coral Restoration Foundation, has been working to show that it is possible to restore declining reefs and restore vitality. The group has pioneered the use of offshore underwater nurseries where it grows coral. When they are large enough, the new corals are transplanted to established reefs. So far, more than 200,000 corals have been planted.

In Key Largo, Mary Doerr was one of several volunteer divers who recently returned from a day transplanting elkhorn corals onto a diseased reef. Doerr, a self-described marine biology nerd, says it was great to see the new growth on the newly transplanted coral, but the reef is far from healthy. “It definitely doesn’t have the richness and diversity of fish,” he says, “and it doesn’t have the complex branching structures and true depth of character and structure that a healthy reef has.”

Staghorn coral returned to Carysfort Reef by Coral Restoration Foundation.

Staghorn coral returned to Carysfort Reef by Coral Restoration Foundation.

Alexander Neufeld/Coral Restoration Foundation

Coral Restoration Foundation executive director Scott Winters says that working with other groups, his staff developed a construction plan to rebuild endangered reefs, beginning with one of the best known, Carysfort Reef. Winters says there is now more coral in Carysfort than at any time in the last 15 years. “Almost everything you see at Carysfort Reef now is a direct result of our coral recovery activity,” he says. “And more importantly, they are thriving and reproducing sexually.”

Winters says the goal is to get coral populations back to a level where they can start rebuilding reefs on their own. Scientists hope that by keeping reefs healthy and thriving, corals will develop the genetic diversity that can help them continue to grow and adapt to long-term threats, including climate change.

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