A Multi-Agency Effort: Critical Boost to Genetic Diversity on the Florida Reef Tract

Updated: Jul 19, 2019

This week, over 3,000 unique genotype corals, reared at the Florida Aquarium from eggs and sperm collected from corals in the Coral Restoration Foundation™ Coral Tree nursery, will be introduced to the Florida Reef Tract.

  • Led by the Florida Aquarium, in collaboration with Coral Restoration Foundation™ (CRF™) and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the University of Florida, Nova Southeastern University, and others, this effort is the largest genetically-diverse coral outplanting of staghorn corals in Florida’s history.

  • This unprecedented conservation mission is designed to help prevent the extinction of corals along the Florida Reef Tract.

  • These reefs have already lost more than 90% of their once-dominant coral populations over the last 40 years, and are now battling a rapidly spreading disease that is killing off some of the reefs’ last remaining wild corals.

  • These new coral genotypes will be outplanted to various specific locations along the Florida Reef Tract, and have also been installed in coral nurseries belonging to Coral Restoration Foundation™, University of Miami, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and Nova Southeastern University, where they will be monitored.

  • Should this pilot project prove successful, it will allow land-based breeding to assist in creating a huge amount of genetic diversity that could then help to regenerate degraded reefs.


The Florida Reef Tract spans nearly 150 miles, from Key Biscayne through the Florida Keys. It is the third largest coral barrier reef system in the world, and critical for the animals and people who depend on it. The reefs of the Florida Keys provide food and recreational opportunities for residents and vacationers alike, and protects coastal communities as a buffer for hurricanes and other storms. The economic impact of tourism related to the Florida Reef Tract generates $8.5 billion in economic activity and supports over 70,400 jobs.


Recognizing these high stakes, The Florida Aquarium has led the largest genetically diverse coral outplanting in Florida’s history along the Florida Reef Tract, in collaboration with Coral Restoration Foundation™ (CRF™) and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the University of Florida, Nova Southeastern University, and others.




A diver brings the new coral recruits into the shelter of the Coral Restoration Foundation™ Coral Tree Nursery. Image: Garrett Fundakowski/Coral Restoration Foundation™

“Florida’s vital coral reefs are a focal point of The Florida Aquarium’s conservation and research mission,” said Roger Germann, President and CEO, “This multi-organizational effort is crucial to the survival of the Florida Reef Tract. The Florida Aquarium will continue to work with the Coral Restoration Foundation and other partners to better understand the threats facing Florida’s coral reefs and how we can continue to work together to restore them significantly faster than they are able to replenish themselves in the wild.”


Corals spawning in the CRF™ Coral Tree Nursery during one of spawning events coordinated by The Florida Aquarium. Image: Jessica Levy/Coral Restoration Foundation™

RESTORING RESILIENCE


In any group of organisms, resilience comes from evolution's ability to naturally select from a diverse wild population; diverse ecosystems are resilient and capable of adapting to change. And so restoring coral diversity is important – working to support the corals’ natural diversity gives coral reefs a better chance of adapting to changing environmental conditions.



Genetic diversity in corals is only created when corals sexually reproduce. Today, wild coral populations are so few and far between that when they spawn, it is unlikely that sperm and eggs from different colonies will get a chance to mix, let alone survive to settle on the reef.


This means that, until now, large-scale restoration efforts have had to rely on working with a limited coral gene-pool – the descendants of survivors of four decades of extreme human impact that have been propagated through fragmentation, a type of natural “cloning”.


However, after successfully sexually breeding and rearing corals from sperm and eggs collected at the Coral Restoration Foundation™ Coral Tree Nursery, the Florida Aquarium and its partners have now taken the first step in returning incredible genetic abundance to damaged and dying reefs - a huge boost to natural populations. With the success of this mission, restoration groups will have increasingly diverse coral stock available that they can use to repopulate the reefs.



BANKING DIVERSITY


Today, more than 1,700 of these new coral genotypes have been homed in the Coral Restoration Foundation™ Tavernier Coral Tree Nursery - the largest Coral Tree Nursery in the world.


Amelia Moura, Coral Restoration Foundation™ Science Program Manager, explains why this matters, “With the transfer of so many new genetic individuals to the nursery, we can begin thinking of the many far-reaching implications of this increased genetic material. Not only do we have thousands of new corals banked in the nursery to preserve their unique genetic strain, but once they grow large enough, we will be in a unique position to incorporate even more genetic diversity into our restoration strategy. This is an exciting moment in reef restoration as it means that the cost of producing thousands of genetically unique individuals comes down dramatically.”


The recruits (young corals) have been grown and transported on settlement tiles. The Coral Restoration Foundation™ team has installed the corals on the Coral Trees along with their tiles so as to not risk losing coral tissue by removing them.


Coral Restoration Foundation™ Science Program Manager Amelia Moura assessing the corals in their newly-adapted Coral Tree. Image: Garrett Fundakowski/Coral Restoration Foundation™

The innovative organization that created the Coral Tree technology is adapting its world-leading design, trialing two new structures to determine which one better accommodates the needs of these unique and fragile colonies.


“We are excited to see these corals, spawned here at CRF™ and reared at The Florida Aquarium returned to our nurseries,” Scott Graves, Coral Restoration Foundation™ COO said. “This is the most successful spawning and rearing of staghorn coral to date, and we’re extremely excited to continue to partner with the Florida Aquarium on the project. These 3,200 animals will provide the critical scientific data needed to see how their diverse genetic make-up will respond to the changing environment in the Florida Reef Tract.


"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.”


*All research activities occurred within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and under permit.*


All images copyright Coral Restoration Foundation™

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