The great rescue of Florida corals from a devastating disease crossed a milestone with the transfer of two batches of knobby cactus and flower cup corals from their Orlando refuge.
The Florida Coral Rescue Center in south Orlando is rearing the largest collection of Florida corals brought in from the wild from just ahead of a fast-moving plague along the state’s southeast coast and Keys.
A batch of 22 coral colonies, each more or less the size of a football, was sent to SEA LIFE Orlando Aquarium on International Drive. Another group of 12 was airlifted to Adventure Aquarium in Camden, New Jersey.
In a hasty, unprecedented and all-hands-on-deck response to prevent coral extinctions, nearly 2,000 species have been under the care of 22 aquariums in 14 states for more than a year, all coordinated by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Captive corals have thrived enough and aquariums have become skilled enough that specimens can be relocated among aquariums to make the best use of space, to group corals more methodically according to type and to set the stage for the next phase –– a massive breeding program.
The Adventure Aquarium recently built another large tank and with the recent shipment became a major repository of corals taken from the Marquesas Keys, west of Key West.
“This is a huge effort and for us to be a part of that is why we get into this industry, to be able to make a difference,” said Travis Kraker, senior biologist at Adventure Aquarium.
The Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease swept 19 species along Florida reefs with surprising speed. Scientists aren’t sure if a virus or bacteria is the primary culprit behind the disease. Treating afflicted corals with antibiotics has shown some promise but it’s not clear if those treatments are targeting the cause of the disease or secondary infections.
Scientists also suspect that corals are weakened by waters warming up with climate change.
Rob Ruzicka, coral research manager at Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, said he and other scientists are watching closely for the number of days in which reef waters exceed 31 degrees Celsius, or nearly 88 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures above that threshold are linked to coral distress such as bleaching and disease proliferation.
“Not every summer has water temperatures that reach 31 degrees but both the frequency in which it does and the duration in which temperatures greater than 31 degrees are sustained have increased dramatically over the last 20 years,” he said.
Corals were taken from the wild from 2018 through early last year. Further collections are anticipated if corals manage to recover at reefs decimated by the disease.
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Corals from other parts of the world have been raised in captivity for years and are well understood. But Florida has long prohibited the taking of its wild corals and little was known about how to care for them in aquarium settings.
During the past year, rescued corals have grown steadily in size as well as in visible robustness. Keepers of corals now have confidence in their ability to nurture captive specimens, which leads to confidence that the specimens can be shipped to other states.
“You would almost not recognize the corals in these tanks because they look so different,” said Ruzicka, who helped with shipping corals from the Orlando rescue center.
“We dive a lot and it’s remarkable to see the differences between the corals here and what we see in the wild because in the wild they are dealing with so many stressors,” Ruzicka said. “Here, they have a wonderful diet, they have wonderful water quality and a wonderful environment. It’s what corals look like when they go on vacation.”
The Florida Coral Rescue Center is housed in a large, unmarked warehouse off Orange Blossom Trail. Its windows are blackened as part of precisely controlling the timing and intensity of light exposed to corals.
The facility is a collaboration of SeaWorld, Disney Conservation and the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida. It began to receive corals in the spring of last year.
Each lump of coral, or coral head, is comprised of a mass of tiny animals called polyps that form a rock-like skeleton. They were affixed to terra-cotta tiles 6 inches by 6 inches. Since then, many of the specimens have outgrown those tiles.
“It’s a little bittersweet but it’s good to know they are going somewhere else where they can expand the population,” said Jelani Reynolds, a member of the SeaWorld team that has cared for the corals for the past year. “Go make lots of babies.”
A comprehensive plan for what to do with the rescued corals is still a work in progress as scientists watch for signs that Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease is waning. They also hope to search for corals genetically evolved to withstand disease, warmer waters and other stresses.
“You need that cosmopolitan mix of defenses against all of those things,” Ruzicka said. “They are going to have to face a lot when they go back out.”
Nearly 2,000 corals are under the care of 22 aquariums in 14 states, all coordinated by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
The cooperative effort is extraordinary for the number of organizations participating but follows a similar approach for the rescue and care of manatees.
The Manatee Rehabilitation Partnership was established in 2001 and is now responding to the state’s worst, mass die-off of manatee, which has been triggered by an ecosystem collapse along the state’s east coast.
The coral disease has inflicted a death rate of 80 percent of affected reefs. Surviving corals tend to be small and young.
“It killed the corals that were large, older, decades or hundreds of years old,” Ruzicka said. “Those are the ones that reproduce the most.”
For now, the focus of the coral rescue is to refine the know-how for taking care of them and then transition that skill into fostering a huge population to be reintroduced eventually in Florida waters.
“We don’t know a lot about their genetics or their population structure,” Stephanie Schopmeyer, a research scientist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.
That’s partly why the coral colonies have been transferred from the Florida Coral Rescue Center to SEA LIFE and to Adventure Aquarium in New Jersey.
Taking a cautious approach, corals taken from different areas of Florida’s reef tract are not being intermingled. But corals taken from the same reefs are being distributed among several aquariums.
“We are trying to space them out so that we are not putting all of our eggs in one basket,” Schopmeyer said.
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With techniques borrowed from commercial growers of corals, the task of shipping precious corals via jetliner borders on meticulousness.
Earlier this week, the Florida Coral Rescue Center team, working with a crew from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission readied 12 coral heads for a flight from Orlando to Philadelphia International Airport.
Their work began at 7 a.m., placing individual corals into plastic baskets that were lined in some places with rolled bubble wrap.
Each basket was nestled inside a durable plastic bag that was inserted into yet another bag, which was then placed into bins made of rigid foam.
Each inner bag was filled with several gallons of seawater. Air was squeezed out of each bag, which was then filled with pure oxygen and sealed tightly. Each foam bin was slid into a closely fitting cardboard box sealed with tape.
In that packaging, corals could survive for two to three days.
The cargo, weighing a combined 620 pounds that cost $850 in airfare, was placed on an early afternoon, Southwest Airlines flight.
“They landed at about 3 p.m.,” Kraker said. “We got them in the car at about 3:45, we arrived back here at the aquarium at about 4:30 and everybody was in their tank at about 6.”
The Adventure Aquarium has exhibited corals from the Indian and Pacific oceans for at least 15 years. In 2019, the aquarium took in 60 coral heads from Florida waters.
Kraker said the aquarium isn’t sure what comes next, other than dialing in more precise care for corals, including the quality and intensity of lighting, and understanding how quickly they will grow.
Florida corals are not exhibited to the public, except for behind-the-scenes tours, but may be displayed eventually.
“When we first got corals, we thought we had extra room but after six months it was like, I don’t know, they are growing pretty quickly and we don’t want to run out of space.”
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has set up a public website, displaying the whereabouts of 19 species of corals taken from 71 reef areas along Florida’s coast.