This month we are bringing you up to speed on our response to this summer's unprecedented marine heatwave, as we work to save as much coral as we can from these extreme temperatures.
This summer was forecast to be especially severe for our reefs due to El Niño. In preparation, in early March we began working in collaboration with NOAA and other local restoration groups to ensure that every coral genotype on Florida’s Coral Reef was represented within our nursery programs. This strategic step was taken to be prepared to safeguard these genotypes in the case of a mortality event due to the projected summer temperatures.
CRF™ took on the responsibility of collecting fragments from three specific "founder" elkhorn colonies at Sombrero Reef in the Lower Keys. These colonies were among the last wild elkhorn corals remaining on Florida’s Coral Reef and are believed to be the ancestors of some of the elkhorn corals in our current programs. While their DNA had been sequenced, no restoration initiative had yet banked their distinct genetic material.
However, upon arriving at Sombrero, our team was confronted with a devastating scene. The summer heat had already taken its toll, causing the demise of these invaluable corals as well as every other staghorn and elkhorn coral in our restoration plot.
The subsequent day’s visit to the CRF™ Looe Key nursery brought further bleak news: all 5,600 staghorn and elkhorn corals in the nursery had either bleached or perished. Nevertheless, a silver lining was found as we managed to rescue several boulder corals, subsequently relocating them to land-based systems at Florida Sea Base.
Swift Response: Mobilizing Our Restoration Partners
Recognising the urgency, we quickly set in motion our NOAA-led plan to bank the maximum possible genetic diversity of Florida’s corals by transferring them to land-based facilities.
With rapid action and the invaluable assistance of our Coral Bus, 417 elkhorn and staghorn corals, spanning 83 and 118 unique genotypes respectively, were successfully moved to land. Furthermore, 484 corals from species like brain, pillar, and star corals were also rescued. Together with NOAA and fellow restoration experts, we managed to safeguard a total of 350 genotypes of the critically endangered staghorn and elkhorn corals. Presently, these corals are being housed at Mote Marine Laboratories in Sarasota and the Reef Institute in West Palm, with all genotypes represented in each institution ensuring that this precious genetic material is safeguarded in redundant systems.
As August began, our focus shifted to “Coral Rescue Phase Two”, targeting the safeguarding of as much of our production stock as possible. In the first push, we managed to pull out around 500 fragments from 25 high-risk Acropora genotypes that were unique to a single nursery and were limited in stock. Thanks to the generosity of Key Largo Fisheries and the use of one of their climate-controlled trucks, these corals found a safe temporary haven under the expert care of the Keys Marine Laboratory team.
In August's second week, Coral Rescue Phase Two advanced still further. Under the guidance of Dr. Phanor Montoya Maya, our Restoration Program Manager, and with crucial contributions from local businesses like the Rainbow Reef dive center (who generously provided a boat) and the unwavering support of Key Largo Fisheries and their truck, we undertook our biggest rescue mission yet; in a single day, we secured an impressive 1,500 coral fragments from five species, covering roughly 100 genotypes, all from the Tavernier Coral Tree Nursery – the world's biggest open ocean coral nursery.
Currently, our tally for rescued corals from ocean-based nurseries from this unprecedented bleaching event stands at approximately 2,500.
Hope Amidst Adversity: Signs of Resilience
Despite these trials, hope endures. We've observed remarkable resilience among several reefs in the Upper Keys including Carysfort Reef – one of our most important restoration sites. And, many of our corals at the Tavernier and Carysfort Coral Tree Nurseries are still holding strong. We have lowered our trees in the water as much as possible and are exploring options for shading them to further protect our corals from the sun's UV rays - another driver of bleaching.
Our teams are out in the nurseries every day, working to reduce overcrowding and mitigate any disease outbreaks. With this ongoing care, we believe there is a good chance that many of our corals may survive this extreme heat.
But the summer’s heat is far from over, and our teams are still working to protect as much coral as we can. Follow us on social media where we are sharing updates from the field as this story continues to unfold....