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Florida Aquarium continues coral restoration research in Cuba

At the current rate of restoration work, some estimate it will be 550 years before certain types of coral are removed from the endangered species list.

"I don't know if that timeline works for you," Scott Graves, director of the Florida Aquarium's Center for Conservation, sarcastically said. "But I am impatient."

It's why, since August 2015, the aquarium has put politics aside to partner on coral restoration with Cuba's National Aquarium.

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Graves and Mike Terrell, director of husbandry at the aquarium, were in Cuba at the end of May to expand an underwater coral nursery off the island's westernmost point, the coast of the Guanahacabibes Peninsula. It was the fifth time the aquarium sent a delegation to Cuba.

By next summer, the aquarium plans to again be in Cuba for what some call a major scientific moment: collecting coral egg and sperm bundles from the nursery.

"It will be the first time that is done in Cuba," Graves said.

And it will speed up joint research on how to restore reefs through sexual reproduction.

"The more work being done, the quicker we get to our objective," Graves said.

Studying Cuban coral can also enable the Florida Aquarium to discover why reefs are dying.

Unlike the rest of the Caribbean, Cuba's reefs are healthy. The only Cuban coral in decline resides near Havana.

Scientists believe over development kills reefs but need to research further. Cuba provides the needed contrast.

Since the 1970s, half the coral cover in Florida and Caribbean waters has died, says a study by the International Coral Reef Initiative. Covering just 2 percent of the ocean floor, reefs are home to 25 percent of marine life.

Each summer when Caribbean coral spawn, scientists with the Florida Aquarium collect samples from an underwater nursery off the coast of Key Largo.

The bundles are then taken to a lab to fertilize in the safety of a controlled environment.

The scientists also conduct experiments to improve the fertilization process.

Most coral babies are released back into nature. Others are taken to greenhouses in Apollo Beach where growth in a controlled setting can be perfected.

The goal is to learn how to raise different genotypes year-round in the coral greenhouses.

When achieved, some will be placed back into nature while some remain banked in the greenhouse in case a disaster wipes out certain types of coral.

In 2016, the National Aquarium collected coral sperm and egg bundles for the first time when it assisted in Key Largo.

Then, in March 2017, Cuba built a coral nursery of its own.

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Nurseries are made of rows of "coral trees," structures erected primarily of 15-foot-long PVC pipes anchored to the sea floor. Fragments collected from coral reefs are hung from the trees.

The Florida Aquarium provided the trees in 2017 and did so again during this past trip when the nursery was doubled in size.

The two-inch fragments planted last year have grown up to seven times that size, Graves said, and by next summer will be ready to spawn.

Next, the Florida Aquarium would like to build a coral greenhouse in Cuba, though there is no timeline on that venture.

For those long embedded in environmental work in Cuba, this is cause for celebration.

"I truly commend the Florida Aquarium for their efforts to cross a political and an actual gulf to restore the coral reefs," said Dan Whittle, who directs the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund's marine and coastal conservation projects in Cuba "This is a global issue."

Contact Paul Guzzo at Follow @PGuzzoTimes.