With coral reefs disappearing around the world due to warming oceans, ocean acidification and coral bleaching, researchers are doing all they can to find a solution to help keep reefs alive and potentially create a new generation of coral that is resilient to the changes.
One of the methods to help coral is taking coral fragments (or frags) that are grown in a lab and placed onto reefs. The truly remarkable part, these frags have been shown to be resilient to the warming oceans, giving them a better chance of survival.
Undertaking this practice, The Florida Aquarium’s biologist and divers are set to a launch a new effort to help grow Florida’s dying reefs by releasing more than 3,000 staghorn corals into the Florida Reef Tract.
“It is the most genetically diverse outplanting of new coral ever in the history of Florida,” said Roger Germann, CEO and President of the Florida Aquarium.
The Florida Aquarium will be working the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation, The University of Florida, the Coral Restoration Foundation and Nova Southeaster University to plant coral on the 150 mile long reef system which spans from Key Biscayne through the Florida Keys.
“It’s suffering some of the pressures of climate change and water quality and a disease that’s running through it so the Florida Aquarium is doing our part to basically repopulate those coral reefs,” said Germann.
“By adding 3,000 new genetic individuals to the reef track that’s a huge increase in the genetic diversity of the existing staghorn population in Florida,” said Keri O’Neil, a Senior Coral Scientist.
“Given the challenges facing our reefs, we recognize both the importance and complexity of restoring them,” said FWC Chairman, Robert Spottswood. “Working together through innovative partnerships such as this one is the first step of many that will bring enhanced genetic diversity and resilience to our reefs.”
Staghorn coral are among the fastest reef-building corals in the world. When healthy, they can grow up to 8 inches a year. Due to the way the coral reproduces which happens in two ways, the coral that is being brought to Florida’s reefs will potentially allow for the coral to grow and expand at a rapid rate due the resilience of the species to warming oceans.
The staghorn can reproduce either asexually or sexually. Sexual reproduction occurs once a year in late summer where sperm are mass released into the water column all at once. While each colony produces both sperm and eggs, they don’t self-fertilize, so sperm released from a different colony fertilizes the eggs. The fertilized eggs then develop into larvae before settling and forming new colonies all over a reef system.
Asexual reproduction occurs when a broken ‘branch’ attaches to the substrate and begins to grow once more. As Staghorn Corals are quite fragile, this is the most common method of reproduction.
The addition of the 3000 coral is extremely exciting but it is important to remember the scale of the operation as the new coral only covers a very small portion of the large reef system and is very expensive to save reefs this way. To truly prevent the total loss of reefs worldwide, we need to reduce the impact climate change has on the oceans by reducing carbon emissions that is warming our planet. If this happens, there is a very good chance the reef systems that may still be alive will be saved.