Armed with a crude set of tools and a tray full of coral skins, or slices, Mote Marine Lab staff scientist Chris Page splashed the surface of the ocean 6 miles off Big Pine Key and descended on what he hoped was fertile terrain for coral farming.
He and members of his research team seemed optimistic, as Mote's previous efforts planting staghorn corals on the same patch reef have yielded positive results.
Mote placed 220 lab-raised mountain star and boulder coral skins on the patch reef on Monday and Tuesday.
Page and his team did what they could to make sure the conditions were optimal. They scouted areas of the small patch reef and selected the best sites for coral growth. Prior to planting the 1-inch coral slices, they poured fresh seawater on the microfragments to get them acclimated to their new surroundings. The skins were also strategically placed in a circle and evenly spread apart in hopes they will grow together and form bigger colonies.
"We are taking advantage of having each of them (coral) grow on their own and not be dependent on each other," Page said. "At this stage, they are growing as fast they can in a very short period of time."
No factor was overlooked to help ensure success, as Page was literally working in uncharted waters. The plantings are the first time these species -- Montastraea cavernosa, Montastraea faveolata and Diploria strigosa -- have been raised in a lab and replanted on the reef.
Mote is calling the coral replanting process "reskinning." The thinly sliced coral microfragments were cut from "rescue corals," removed prior to underwater construction projects and placed in an underwater coral repository behind the Eco-Discovery Center in Key West.
The coral skins were raised in small tanks at Mote's Summerland Key lab for roughly 10 months prior to their release into the wild, Page said.
The reskinning science came about by accident. Mote Marine Lab Summerland Key Facility Executive Director Dave Vaughn was pulling one of the smaller boulder coral pieces off its stand in an aquarium when it broke off and fell to the bottom of the tank. He thought the coral would die, and left it there. But days later, he noticed the coral was growing horizontally across the bottom.
"Sometimes great advances in science are made through accidents," Vaughn said.
At the same time, Page had been independently working with the species of coral and noticed how quickly the fragments grew when cut into small sections.
To help facilitate growth, Mote is using the skeletal remains of the corals' ancestors. Mote is placing the skins atop dead boulder and mountain star coral with the goal of them eventually carpeting the entire coral skeletons. The development of full-grown boulder and mountain star corals can take decades, as it takes years for the corals to obtain enough calcium carbonate from the ocean to grow to full size.
Placing the corals on dead skeletons allows the coral to focus all its energy on spreading across the coral and not building a calcium carbonate skeleton.
Mote has another 2,000 mountain star and boulder coral fragments at its Summerland Key lab. Those fragments, or skins, could join the others on the reef in the fall, but only after Page reviews the success of the first batch.
The corals will join 230 staghorn corals Mote has placed on the same patch reef in the past two years. Those staghorns are thriving.
Mote scientists have raised more than 8,500 baby staghorn corals at their nursery just off Looe Key.
Mote began test plantings in 2008 and 2009 before conducting major coral outplantings in 2012, when scientists planted 600 staghorn corals at four sites near Looe Key and American Shoal, said Erich Bartels, Mote coral reef science and monitoring program director.
Mote planted another 196 staghorn corals on Thursday and Friday, Bartels said.
Plowing new fields
Coral farming in the Florida Keys has grown by leaps and bounds the past several years. Scientists once thought it a pipe dream to do larger-scale restoration projects with nursery-raised corals, but it is quickly becoming a reality. Upper Keys marine biologist Ken Nedimyer, known as the "Johnny Appleseed" of coral, has pioneered the technology.
In 2006, Nedimyer was cautious when talking about the success of nursery-raised corals and whether he and others could use them for large projects. At that time, he maintained the corals should be used more for research and some small restoration projects.
Nedimyer's tune had changed when he talked to The Citizen last year, as the number of healthy staghorn corals raised and replanted has grown exponentially.
He has been raising corals the longest in the Florida Keys, and founded the Coral Restoration Foundation in the Upper Keys. Nedimyer has raised thousands at his offshore nurseries and transplanted them at 20 different reefs. His corals were also the first nursery-raised ones to spawn naturally after being placed on the reef.
The Coral Reef Foundation was also the first to place nursery-raised corals on the popular dive spot Molasses Reef, which was done in July 2012.
Vaughn wants to expand where Mote and other conservation groups are replanting coral. He is one of the chairs of a working group formed by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, tasked with reviewing proposed rule changes dealing with coral reefs.
The sanctuary is reviewing its management plan to see if changes are needed. The Coral Reef Ecosystem Restoration Working Group is proposing placing coral nurseries and doing replanting on more-visited dive and snorkel spots -- such as Sand Key off Key West -- like Nedimyer did on Molasses Reef.
"This would allow the public to see and get a better idea of what we are doing," Vaughn said. "It could encourage others to get involved."
Many of the Key West-based watersports operators regularly take their customers to Sand Key. On any given weekend, hundreds of people visit the spot. From use and disease, Sand Key is one of the more beat-up Lower Keys reefs in need of the most attention.
Vaughn's proposal will be one of several recommendations the working group will make when presenting its ideas to the Sanctuary Advisory Council later this year.
"We need to be promoting this type of restoration work," Sanctuary Superintendent Sean Morton said. "People need to see it so they can support it."
Repairing the world's reefs
Coral nursery and replanting technology developed in the Keys is now being exported to reefs around the world.
The Bonaire Reef Pilot Project was created after Buddy Dive Resort invited the Coral Restoration Foundation to help Bonaire with its reef conservation programs. The project involves conducting restoration of the shallow reefs by establishing a nursery and developing a program designed to cultivate staghorn and elkhorn corals, according the foundation.
The foundation will collect different genetic strains of staghorn and elkhorn coral, which will be used to populate coral in two nurseries. The coral colonies will be monitored and maintained by local conservationists trained by the Coral Restoration Foundation. The corals will be the base nursery stock that will be fragmented every six months to develop second- and third-generation corals, to be planted back on the reefs.
The Coral Restoration Foundation is also exporting its coral techniques to Colombia. It conducted a field survey on reefs of the Rosary Islands, off Colombia, in 2010 and is developing a conservation and restoration program. It will be a multiyear effort of coral replanting and community outreach.
"This coral restoration can be done on broad scale, and it is also giving scientists a better understanding of threats facing coral reefs," Morton said.