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Coral Rescue: Preserving Florida’s Corals

An underwater view of a diseased coral

You’ve heard of the California Condor project, where scientists moved all wild condors to zoos to save the species, but have you heard of the Coral Rescue Project? Due to how widespread, fast-moving, and deadly stony coral tissue loss disease is, FWC and partners made the unprecedented decision to collect healthy corals from the wild ahead of the disease to conserve Florida’s coral species and protect their genetic diversity. This disease has been impacting Florida’s reefs since 2014, starting in Miami and spreading north and south through 90% of the reef tract. FWC scientists began collecting colonies of the most at-risk species from wild reefs and placing them into zoos, aquariums, and research facilities around the United States until the disease subsides and it’s safe to return them (and their future offspring) to the reef.

A pilot coral rescue effort was conducted over three days in September 2018 when 102 healthy colonies were collected by divers using small hammers and chisels from three reef sites near Key West.  Since then, more than 2,000 corals from19 species have been rescued from the Florida’s Coral Reef including the Lower Keys, Marquesas Islands, and the Dry Tortugas. Additionally, corals are now being collected at sites within the “endemic” zone. Similar to a forest fire, the disease is blazing when it first moves through a reef. The area behind the leading edge of the fire, no longer directly in roaring flames but with hot embers, is analogous to the endemic zone.  These are areas where the number of coral colonies infected with the disease are no longer at its peak but a small number of infections are still present. Collecting endemic zone corals which survived the disease allows scientists to preserve unique genes which may provide resistance to the disease. During collection, small tissue samples were taken from each coral to collect genetic information. This information will be important for coral restoration efforts to ensure there is enough genetic diversity when the offspring of these corals are outplanted back onto wild reefs.

Corals are transported locally by truck or shipped via air cargo to 22 research facilities, zoos, and aquariums around the country.  Coral Rescue would not have been possible without an amazing partnership with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) where the corals will receive expert care by highly trained aquarists and veterinarians over the next several years. Many of the rescued coral species are being held under human care for the first time, so we are learning much more about the ecology and physiology of these corals.   

What’s happening to the corals in the meantime?  Rescue corals will be part of a large breeding program at holding facilities to increase abundance and genetic diversity through selective breeding. To date, 10 species of rescue corals have produced offspring under human care - both expanding our understanding of reproductive strategies and increasing the number and diversity of corals in holding.  The first juvenile corals created through breeding of rescue corals were outplanted in December of 2019, to begin to restore the coral populations of Florida’s Coral Reef.

Learn more about the Coral Rescue Project.