April 17, 2019

The Florida Aquarium/Contributed
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission chairman Robert Spottswood, second from right, a Key West businessman, sees the results of corals grown to replenish local reefs during a visit to the Keys Marine Laboratory on Long Key. Florida Aquarium coral scientist Keri O'Neil, right, and lab deputy director Cindy Lewis detail the project.

The Florida Aquarium/Contributed Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission chairman Robert Spottswood, second from right, a Key West businessman, sees the results of corals grown to replenish local reefs during a visit to the Keys Marine Laboratory on Long Key. Florida Aquarium coral scientist Keri O'Neil, right, and lab deputy director Cindy Lewis detail the project.

LONG KEY — Thousands of tiny staghorn corals spawned in the Florida Keys returned to the reef this month in a multi-agency project to mitigate damage from an ongoing coral-disease threat.

About 3,200 “unique genotype corals” that began life at the Coral Restoration Foundation’s coral-tree nursery off the Upper Keys were taken back to the reef after bring nurtured by the Keys Marine Lab on Long Key and The Florida Aquarium’s Center for Conservation near Tampa.

Staghorn corals appear to be immune from the ongoing threat of an undersea plague called the Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease that has killed or sickened varieties of boulder coral along the Florida reef tract.

The Florida Aquarium/Contributed
Baby staghorn corals nurtured in the Florida Keys research site are part of a reef-replenishment effort to help mitigate the coral loss caused by a virulent disease.

“We believe that spawning, rearing and introducing genetically diverse coral is our best hope for saving the Florida reef tract,” Roger Germann, Florida Aquarium president, said.

“We could not conduct an outplanting of this scale without the partnership we have with the Coral Restoration Foundation, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and others,” Germann said. “This is a prime example of how working together is the key to restoring our Blue Planet.”

During a two-week period, science divers boarded boats from the Keys Marine Lab, Florida Aquarium, Coral Restoration Foundation and the FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in Marathon to plant the nurtured corals, spawned in 2017 and 2018.

Staff with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, University of Florida and Nova Southeastern University also took part.

“We’re excited to see these corals, spawned here at Coral Restoration Foundation and reared at The Florida Aquarium, returned to our nurseries,” CRF operating officer Scott Graves said. “This is the most successful spawning and rearing of staghorn coral to date. These sexual recruits embody a significant increase in the genetic diversity of this imperiled species, and represent a big leap forward for coral reef restoration.”

FWC board chairman Robert Spottswood of Key West spoke with scientists during a visit to the Long Key lab.

“The hands-on work of these experts is vital to strengthening our coral reefs and ensuring a positive future for this ecosystem,” Spottswood said.

Florida Aquarium coral scientist Keri O’Neil said nurturing techniques learned using branching corals may be a key to reintroducing boulder corals.

“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,” O’Neil said.

Coral spawn nurtured in a protected nursery have a far higher survival rate than corals in the wild, according to the aquarium staff.

kwadlow@keysnews.com