Updated: Feb 22
As one of our corporate sponsors, Aquarium at the Boardwalk is bringing Florida's Coral Reef, to the midwest! Together we've designed a beautiful, educational mural that teaches aquarium patrons about coral decline, how Coral Restoration Foundation™ is working to restore this vital ecosystem, and what they can do to help!
Guests learn about Coral Restoration Foundation™ and spread the word along with their coral wings! ©Aquarium at the Boardwalk
Steve Bitter is the Director of Husbandry at Aquarium at the Boardwalk in Branson, Missouri. He leads a team of 16 aquarists and life support specialists who are responsible for the wellbeing of the animals and the proper maintenance of their habitats.
Bitter began his public aquarium career at The Florida Aquarium as a Senior Biologist and then worked as the Curator at Sea Life in Tempe, Arizona. He later became part of Sea Life’s global development team and opened seven aquariums in the US, China, Japan, Malaysia, and the United Kingdom.
He joined Kuvera Partners in 2019 to prepare Aquarium at the Boardwalk for its November 2020 opening, working tirelessly to curate and ethically source a collection of 10,000+ fish and develop habitats that house them at the highest standards for their entire lives.
Their support will educate thousands who may never have had the chance to connect with and learn about coral reefs! Below Steve shares his personal connection to coral reefs and why he and Aquarium at the Boardwalk are passionate about coral restoration!
What is your earliest memory of the ocean?
I grew up in the desert and didn’t visit the California coast until I was about 7 or 8, so I remember my first trip to the ocean quite clearly. I remember being startled at how cold the water was but also being fascinated by all of the shells, kelp, urchins, and other evidence of ocean life.
I picked up shells, studying the different color patterns and varying degrees of smoothness. I was curious to learn where they had all come from, and how they lived. There was a whole other world underwater, and even at that age, I wanted to know more about it.
What is your favorite marine creature?
Since really getting serious about aquariums, I’ve been in love with corals, and they are definitely my favorite marine animal. They are rewarding to work with, the same way gardening must be rewarding for plant enthusiasts. I also find myself getting lost looking at their shapes, retracing the story of what past conditions and interactions might have made them grow the way they have.
Moon jellyfish are related to corals, both have stinging cells! ©Aquarium at the Boardwalk
Have you experienced a healthy coral reef ecosystem? If so where, and how did it make you feel?
The best reef I’ve been able to explore was on a small island off the coast of Bali in Indonesia. I saw seemingly endless species and was blown away by habitats that I'd never thought of before. On one gentle slope going away from the beach, a chalice coral (Echinophyllia sp.) had grown so abundantly that old plates of it had broken off and piled up underneath it, creating its own geological feature across acres of sea bottom.
The entire slope was made up of this single coral species’ broken and discarded skeleton, and many familiar species of fish, nudibranchs, soft corals, and even mantis shrimp were making a home out of this rubble slope. The coral was altering the entire coastline with its growth, and it was creating a home for so many animals that I treasure. I felt really inspired by the harmony on display in that ecosystem, and I came up from that dive even more energized to share the ocean with other people.
Have you seen a badly degraded reef system? How did that make you feel?
My first dive trip ever was to the Middle Florida Keys, and I was really excited to finally see a wild reef. I saw a lot of pretty fish and other animals, and the water was pleasantly warm, but by that time I knew enough about reef ecology to know that this wasn’t how a reef should look.
Piles of dead, worn branches from staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis) littered the sand channels in between the reef rock, but there was no live staghorn coral to be found. Algae was encroaching across the remaining reef rock and causing recession on the edges of the boulder corals still there.
It was evident that this reef had undergone a dramatic shift over the prior years, and I suspected a lot of the diversity on that reef had dropped off. I came back to that same dive site years later, after I moved to Florida, and was even more discouraged to see that even fewer fish remained on the reef and that the centuries-old brain corals were succumbing to bleaching and tissue loss. It was a hopeless feeling, and I remember feeling very discouraged and mournful about the future of Florida’s reefs.
Patrons learn about coral reefs and Coral Restoration Foundation™ through this interactive, educational mural. ©Aquarium at the Boardwalk
Shortly after, I took another trip to do my first coral restoration work with CRF™. On the boat ride out to the nursery, I felt very determined, and when we finally rolled into the water it was a hopeful sight to see all the staghorn fragments hanging on the coral trees ready to return to the reef. It was nice to think that we might possibly be able to replace a lost species and restore hope to the degraded reef.
Years later I had a chance to dive that exact site again, and many of those corals had indeed grown up to become adult colonies. What a joy to see the corals that I had restored growing and becoming a part of that ecosystem again!
What concerns or scares you the most about climate change?
I am most frightened of the absolute finality of climate change’s effects. For me, the natural world is what makes this planet so worth exploring, and I’ve been fortunate to explore a lot of it. The habitats and species we are losing through climate change are things that we can’t get back, and that loss is overwhelming and heartbreaking.
Why do you, personally, care about coral reefs?
After working for so long with coral reef animals, I feel like I’ve been privileged to understand a little bit about their world. As I’ve gotten to know them, I’ve fallen completely in love with their habits and stories, and I find so many things about coral reefs to be really magical. I want to see them get a chance to thrive into the future, and I want other people to get a chance to get to know them as I have.
Creating connections and sharing the story of Coral Restoration Foundation™ is fun and easy! ©Aquarium at the Boardwalk
Why is protecting and restoring coral reefs relevant to your brand?
We believe that connecting people with nature makes the world better. Healthy coral reefs have a number of important practical benefits for human beings, especially as a source of food. They are also inspiring and captivating on their own. We want to ensure that coral reefs continue to provide those benefits and continue to be a source of inspiration for generations to come.
Why should the average person care about coral reefs?
We depend on coral reefs far more than we know and losing them would be so destabilizing that the entire world would feel it. Coral reefs are one of many ecosystems that help define the parameters of our planet, and help human beings have a dependable way of life. Without that stability, the hunger and economic disruption caused would be almost unimaginable. Whether we like it or not, our way of life is tied to the health of the planet, including coral reefs.
In your opinion, what are some of the most powerful tools at our disposal that we can apply to the mission to save coral reefs?
I spent my early years in the public aquarium world doing research into coral spawning, with the idea that it might be possible to selectively breed corals that could adapt to different temperature conditions and survive climate change. I think this kind of small-scale restoration holds a lot of promise, and I’m grateful for the work that Coral Restoration Foundation™ and others are doing. Of course, I am also convinced that we need to act on the climate as a whole, and my hope is that human ingenuity will lead us to innovative new ways to offset our impacts on the planet, such as reducing CO2 and methane in the atmosphere. I hope that getting people to connect with the ocean in our aquarium will help drive more people to focus on the important work that’s needed to move us toward solutions.
There is a little merperson in all of us. Everyone has the power to make a difference for coral reefs! ©Aquarium at the Boardwalk
What do you think are some of the easiest ways that the average person can join the mission to save coral reefs from extinction?
For those who dive or travel, visiting devastated areas to volunteer is a possibility, and it can be really rewarding. Also, there are many talented people working to push research forward on coral reef restoration and climate change. We can support them either financially or through amplifying their message. Caring about the cause and inspiring others to do so is influential, and I think it’s critically important if we’re going to solve the major challenges facing the planet. Working with Coral Restoration Foundation™ is such a win on all these fronts, because even from here in Branson we can support direct efforts to make an impact. It’s great knowing that there are friends and allies who are getting out on the water and are taking every opportunity to create a better future for coral reefs.
Do you think there is hope for our coral reefs? Why?
Like so many, I am constantly saddened by the continued loss of healthy reefs around the world, and at this point I don’t believe things will ever be quite as they were. But I have to believe there is hope. Unfortunately, human activity has led to some really overwhelming problems for coral reefs. However, humans have solved massive problems in the past, and we are amazing when we work together.
I see no reason why we shouldn’t be able to figure out creative ways to reduce pollution, decrease acidification, and employ targeted reef management to improve reef health and get those ecosystems moving back in the right direction. In the meantime, it is important that we keep doing everything we can to help coral reefs adapt and survive. For our team here in Branson, that means continuing to get people inspired by the beauty of coral reefs and supporting our allies like CRF™ who are on the front lines trying to sustain healthy reefs.
Support for coral reef restoration from all areas is vital for the success of our mission! Even from the middle of the USA in a landlocked state, everyday people can make a huge impact for corals!
Thank you so much to Steve and his team at Aquarium at the Boardwalk for their dedication and support of Coral Restoration Foundation™. It is time to spread our coral wings and fly!