Florida Aquarium raising corals to replace those devastated by disease in the Florida Keys Reef Tract

Florida Aquarium scientists are working with the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission and NOAA to rear corals in the lab to replace those being wiped out by disease along the Florida Reef.
Keri O’Neil, left, senior coral scientist with the Florida Aquarium, and a colleague work at the sea floor introducing corals to the Florida Reef Tract. [Photo courtesy of Florida Aquarium]
Keri O’Neil, left, senior coral scientist with the Florida Aquarium, and a colleague work at the sea floor introducing corals to the Florida Reef Tract. [Photo courtesy of Florida Aquarium]
Published April 11

TAMPA — Biologists and divers from The Florida Aquarium, working at the Keys Marine Laboratory, are releasing more than 3,000 staghorn coral offspring back into the waters of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Staghorn coral is not affected by Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease, which has spread through much of the Florida Reef Tract.

The techniques used at The Florida Aquarium to raise young corals from eggs and sperm will be applied in the future to species that are heavily affected by the disease, according to a news release from the aquarium in downtown Tampa. The Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission is working with the aquarium on the project. They were releasing the corals into the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Robert Spottswood, chairman of the Wildlife Conservation Commission, recently visited the team from the aquarium at the marine laboratory on Long Key, at mile marker 68.5.

“Using corals that were rescued before the disease hit as the parents, we will be able to create a supportive breeding program for disease-affected species where thousands of corals can be produced and re-introduced to the Florida Reef Tract when the time is right,” Keri O’Neil, Senior Coral Scientist for The Florida Aquarium, said in the release. “We are working closely with FWC and NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service to rescue as many corals as possible, to serve as the parents for future generations of corals once the disease has passed.”

Each one of the corals released has a unique genetic makeup, originating from 20 different parents, and range in age from eight months to two years old.

The Florida Reef Tract is experiencing a multi-year outbreak of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease. While the disease is not uncommon, this infection is unique because of its large geographic range, duration and the number of species affected, according to the aquarium.

A single pair of brain corals can produce thousands of offspring each year, and when reared in the laboratory, survival can be as high as 50%, compared to less than 1% in the wild.

“Innovative partnerships like this are vital to this complicated mission,” Spottswood said in the news release. “The hands-on work of these experts is vital to strengthening our coral reefs and ensuring a positive future for this ecosystem.”

Advertisement