Florida is the home to the most extensive shallow coral reef formations in North America. From the Florida Keys to the Dry Tortugas, these coral reefs have been under increasingly destructive influences over the years due to dredging, ship groundings, and illegal collecting. As if that weren't enough of an uphill battle, the recent cold snap in January damaged many of the shallow coral formations from Key Largo to Key West.
Surveys continue to be done by trained scuba divers to assess the damage, but difficult conditions and visibility make the gathering of data difficult.
The Florida Aquarium’s team of scientific divers travelled to the Keys February 15 to mark the start of a new phase of its Coral Propagation Project. What began as a celebration of successful research became a sobering realization that the project is now more important than ever to the restoration of corals in Florida.
If initial reports are true and the majority of shallow coral formation in the Keys have been damaged from the cold water, the need to propagate corals using controlled land-based aquaculture sites, aren’t just important, they are essential.
“Corals have been in a threatened state for years and the work we’re doing has been of utmost importance,” says Allan Marshall, Vice President of Biological Operations at The Florida Aquarium. “With the amount of corals lost in last month’s cold snap, the urgency of this work takes on a whole new meaning. With fragmenting and ‘planting’ new corals we can kick-start the growth of these coral formations and cut years off the healing process.”
Three years ago, in response to the demise of corals worldwide, the Global Coral Reef Institute (GCRI) at The Florida Aquarium developed the first health certificate for coral. Health certificates are necessary when releasing any living creature back to the wild. The global interest in this research and the work done by GCRI and its partners has been expressed from as far away as Italy and Japan.
“First, the fragment grows over where it was cut, and that increases its chance of survival,” said Craig Watson, director of Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory of University of Florida. “Secondly, we can accurately determine their general health – if they are doing well after six months they should be healthy enough to plant in the open water. And finally, the time in culture serves as a quarantine period so that any potentially disruptive illnesses can be addressed before placing the fragments among other living coral.”
GCRI has done extensive research on this process off the coast of Key West while operating under a permit from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to return propagated coral back to the open ocean.
Now, the second phase of the project has begun: mass planting coral fragments in the hundreds and thousands on a 1-acre lease site underwater off of Key Largo.
“Now that we know the process is effective and the research sound,” said Allan Marshall, Vice President of Biological Operations at The Florida Aquarium. “It is time to begin propagating these corals in earnest.”