THE TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS OF CORAL RESTORATION
Over the last 11 years, Coral Restoration Foundation™ has returned 142,395 corals to our restoration sites, restoring more than 17,600 square meters of Florida’s Coral Reef. In 2020 alone we put 27,293 corals back into the wild. We have over a decade of research and development under our belts and continue to improve our methods. Today we are taking a look back at some of our tried-and-true methodology and looking to the future with new innovations!
A school of fish swims through a Coral Restoration Foundation™ coral nursery which houses over 500 Coral Trees™ and over 1200 putative genotypes across 22 coral species. ©Alex Neufeld/Coral Restoration Foundation™
To raise the massive quantities of corals CRF™ returns to the wild each year, we take advantage of corals natural, asexual reproduction; fragmentation!
When a coral breaks the separate pieces will grow into new, genetically identical colonies. More than a decade ago, with permits from NOAA and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, CRF™ fragmented clippings from wild coral colonies and began propagating them in our coral nurseries. Now, our stock can produce over 45,000 reef-ready corals in one year and is self-sustaining.
Fragmentation is not the only tool needed to foster the growth of thousands of corals. CRF™ also invented the Coral Tree™ which suspends coral fragments in the water allowing them to grow larger, faster! The Coral Tree™ is now widely accepted as one of the best methods for in-situ coral propagation.
CRF™ Restoration Program Manager Jess Levy fragments elkhorn corals in-situ. ©Alex Neufeld/Coral Restoration Foundation™
The Coral Trees™ are tethered to the ocean floor and buoyed with a subsurface float. They float in the water column and are able to move with wave surges and current. This helps prevent damage to the tree structures and corals by absorbing the wave energy. Coral fragments are hung from the branches of the trees using monofilament line. This simple, cost-effective technology is used by groups all around the world.
Coral Trees™ invented by CRF™ are cost effective, durable, and allow branching corals to grow 4x faster than when attached to a substrate. ©Alex Neufeld/Coral Restoration Foundation™
Suspended in the nutrient-and sunlight-rich water column, the fragments of Acroporid corals on our Coral Trees™ grow into colonies that are large enough to be returned to the reef in just six to nine months.
Unlike Staghorn (Acropora cervicornis) and Elkhorn (Acropora Palmata) corals, bouldering coral species like boulder star corals (Orbicella annularis) and mountainous star corals (Orbicella faveolata) grow out onto the substrate on a single plane, then grow upwards into massive “boulder-like” mounds.
Their unique growth compared to Acroporid species provided us with some hurdles to overcome when learning to fragment and grow them. We’ve recently published our third white paper detailing our innovative boulder coral restoration methodology which you can download for free on our website. If you’d rather have the cliff notes version read on and get a behind the scenes look at the development of our boulder coral restoration practices!
A wild boulder star coral (Orbicella annularis) living on Florida's Coral Reef. ©Alex Neufeld/Coral Restoration Foundation™
When we first began working with boulder corals we cored them with a drill, glued the fragments to 3x5 inch pieces of cardstock and hung them on our standard Coral Trees™. We learned this was a rather inefficient way of propagating boulder corals as the trees could not hold very many corals and they were not growing in the same manner as the branching corals. Boulder Coral Tree™ version 1 ©CRF™
Then in order to maximize the amount of sunlight reaching the boulder corals we changed the orientation of the cards, placing them horizontally, facing the ocean surface.While the design was better for growth than letting the corals hang in the water column, we continued to innovate.
Boulder Coral Tree™ version 2 ©CRF™
Our most recent boulder tree design holds the corals on “plugs” made of sand in a horizontal position on special trays. The trays can be organized and oriented in numerous ways to provide the young corals ample sunlight and space to grow. Each tree has six branches and can hold around 400 boulder coral fragments. . The design enables us to hold much more corals per tree and allows for easy cleaning and maintenance. Read our past Bringing It Back article for even more details on our boulder coral tree design!
Boulder Coral Tree™ version 3 ©CRF™
Our Tavernier Nursery now has an entire section dedicated to boulder trees with almost 100 trees that hold 42 genotypes of Mountainous star coral (Orbicella faveolata) and 36 genotypes of Boulder star coral (Orbicella annularis).
PROPAGATING MORE SPECIES
In early October 2021, we began propagating great star coral (Monstrea cavernosa), making it our 6th species of stony coral we’ve propagated thus far. We used two sizes of coral fragments and are testing whether larger fragments called disks (5-10 polyps), or smaller fragments called plugs (3-5 polyps) are best for fast growth. We are monitoring their growth by taking pictures every 2 weeks and measuring size using image tracing software.
Great star corals growing in a CRF™ coral nursery. ©Coral Restoration Foundation™
So far, we’ve propagated one genotype of great star coral into 24 broodstock, 87 plugs, and 18 coral disks. We have even more genotypes from our Coral Rescue Project (click here to read those details) and plan to scale up our great star coral propagation once we develop the best methods for propagation for the species.
Boulder Coral Trees hold many fragments of corals. ©Jess Levy/Coral Restoration Foundation™
Prior to finishing our coral rescue project with the Florida Keys Electric Cooperative (read that whole story here), we were working with 415 genotypes across 11 species. Now our nurseries hold double the species and a staggering 1169 putative genotypes. We hope to eventually propagate and build up reef ready stocks of all our new species to bring resilient, genetically diverse coral reefs back to South Florida.
"Bringing It Back" Editorial Interns
"Bringing it Back" Editorial Intern
Tom grew up in Palm Springs, CA and knew he wanted to be an environmentalist from an early age. His interest in the natural world was fueled by frequent trips to the beaches, deserts, and forests of the West Coast. Tom recently graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles with a degree in Marine Biology and a minor in Conservation Biology. He entered the marine realm after taking his first conservation class and learning about how vulnerable coral reefs are to climate change. He started diving in the Channel Islands and became a scientific diver to research algae while on a quarter abroad in Mo’orea, French Polynesia. While abroad, he experienced the degradation of coral reefs firsthand. Tom is very excited to work with CRF™ to make a positive impact on coral reefs and inspire people to take action to tackle the upcoming climate crisis.
Madalen Howard is CRF's Marketing Associate. Madalen comes to CRF™ via a winding road from the Tennessee hills, to the South Carolina low country, ending here in Florida’s Coral Reef. She earned her Bachelor's degree in Marine Biology and a Minor in Environmental Studies from the College of Charleston in 2016. Her experience ranges from field research to education, and communications.
Madalen spent the last 4 years as a Field Instructor and Social Media Strategist for MarineLab Environmental Education Center. Here she was able to study and teach marine ecology, while snorkeling through mangroves, seagrasses, and coral reefs every day. While at MarineLab she combined her education and research background, entered the world of communications, and developed MarineLab’s social media department from the ground up.
Throughout her life Madalen has had a skill connecting people with nature. With CRF™, she is excited to bring people into the world of coral restoration, creating inclusive pathways to scientific discovery.