In an advancement that could potentially help turnaround the sharp decline of coral deaths in reef off Florida’s south coast, the Florida Aquarium in Tampa has announced that they have made scientific history as a group of coral have successfully reproduced two days in a row for the first time in a lab setting.
The discovery is part of a program named “Project Coral” which is designed with the goal to help repopulate the Florida Reef Tract which is the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States and is the third largest in the world.
Generating coral spawn has never been done for corals native to the Atlantic Ocean and many experts believed the project would be a failure.
The team of researchers have been focusing on pillar coral as the species is now classified as almost extinct due to the remaining male and female cluster being too far part to reproduce.
Coral reefs in this system have been devastated by a disease that wipes out whole coral colonies in just a couple weeks. Half of Florida’s 45 reef-building coral species had been affected by 2017, according to a guide issued by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection that year, including five species listed under the Endangered Species Act. The disease is known as stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD) and is quickly spreading.
“It’s quite possible that we just had our last wild spawning of pillar coral this year due to the Stoney Coral Tissue Loss Disease,” the aquarium’s coral expert Keri O’Neill said. “But with the success of this project, as a scientist, I now know that every year for the foreseeable future we can spawn Florida pillar corals in the laboratory and continue our work trying to rebuild the populations”.
According to the aquarium, the coral greenhouses use advanced LED technology and computer-control systems to mimic the natural environment of the coral to subtly signal the corals to reproduce. They spent months mimicking the natural environment of corals using advanced technology to reproduce the timing of sunrises, sunsets, moonrises and moonsets to trigger the animals to spawn.
The spawning now shows that genetic diversity and resilience are possible, and it will help keep the ecosystems, as well as Florida’s tourist economy, intact.
This project is a “head start” program for coral. The Aquarium will raise the juvenile corals long enough to give them a better chance of survival than they would have had as larvae in the ocean.
The next steps are to continue the project and build more greenhouses so the aquarium and scientists on the project can work to build a better ecosystem for all wildlife.