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Mote researchers observe restored corals spawning near Florida Keys for first time

The mountainous star corals are a key, but endangered, part of the Florida Reef Tract

The next generation of Florida coral could be on its way.

On Wednesday, Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium scientists announced they’ve seen several of their restored mountainous star coral colonies spawning for the first time in Florida and Caribbean waters.

The scientists observed a coral colony near Cook Island in the Florida Keys release its eggs and sperm on Sunday. An additional five colonies spawned on Monday.

The massive coral species is endangered and forms part of the “backbone” of Florida’s Reef Tract, according to a Mote news release. The research and conservation group has worked to restore Florida corals with disease-resistant colonies that reach sexual maturity faster than they normally do in the wild.

That’s thanks to Mote’s coral restoration process, which the laboratory calls microfragmentation-fusion.

Coral is cut into smaller pieces and grown in a land-based nursery. The fragments are then planted on a dead coral head and fused together as they grow, creating a large colony that would normally take decades to form.

Hanna Koch, a Mote postdoctoral research fellow, said the ultimate goal of coral restoration is to get colonies to reach a “sexually mature, self-sustaining state.

“If corals stop reproducing, they face extinction,” Koch said.

Hanna Koch, a Mote postdoctoral research fellow, said the coral spawning brings it closer to becoming self-sustaining. [ Courtesy of Hanna Koch ]

Continued coral reproduction will create more genetically diverse — and therefore more resilient — members of the species.

The restored mountainous star coral colonies spawning this week have survived a global coral bleaching event in 2015, Hurricane Irma in 2017 and a 2019 tissue loss disease outbreak. Corals, which reach sexuality maturity at a given size rather than age, can take decades to reproduce, while Mote colonies can reach maturity after just five years.

Other marine biologists from around the state expressed excitement over Mote’s discovery.

Pamela Hallock Muller, a marine science professor at the University of South Florida, said the restored coral’s reproduction is more likely to be successful because several colonies have been producing eggs and sperm.

“That increases the probability that they can produce viable offspring,” she said.

Caitlin Lustic, south Florida marine conservation manager for The Nature Conservancy, said it’s encouraging to see restored coral begin to approach self-sustainability.

“Seeing them spawn on the reef is the next step of knowing that ultimate goal is possible,” she said.

As coral reefs are threatened by climate change and disease, researchers across the state have searched for ways to help them recover. In August of 2019, Florida Aquarium scientists achieved Atlantic Ocean coral spawning in a laboratory for the first time ever. And in December of 2019, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced plans for a nearly $100 million project to restore seven reefs in the Florida Keys.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, southeast Florida coral reefs and the visitors and outdoor explorers they draw have an annual economic impact in the billions of dollars and support 70,400 full- and part-time jobs.