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Florida Coral Rescue

A diver holds a smooth flower coral underwater

An unprecedented coral disease event has ravaged Florida’s reefs since 2014, causing mortality in more than 20 Caribbean coral species. The disease, known as stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD), began near Miami, Florida, and has since spread through the northern extent of Florida's Coral Reef in Martin County, south through the Florida Keys, west into the Marquesas, and is currently just inside the boundary of the Dry Tortugas National Park. Due to the rapid spread of the disease, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in partnership with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and National Park Service (NPS), developed a coral disease response network consisting of 9 teams. One of these disease response teams is the Florida Coral Rescue Team led by FWC and NOAA Fisheries.

The goal of the Florida Coral Rescue Team is to gene bank or “rescue” corals for purposes of restoring Florida’s Coral Reef. Rescuing corals consists of collecting both healthy corals from ahead of the disease boundary and survivor corals that remain in areas that have already been affected by the disease, and holding these corals in land-based facilities to prevent them from becoming infected, to preserve genetic diversity, and to propagate (breed) them for restoration of Florida’s Coral Reef. These rescued corals will serve as the parents of future generations of coral offspring that will be propagated to restore Florida’s Coral Reef.

Coral Rescue efforts began in late 2018 by developing a collection plan based on preserving genetic diversity, conducting pilot collections, and developing a public-private partnership with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) to gene bank and provide longer-term care for Rescue corals. Two years later, the Coral Rescue Team has rescued ~2,000 corals of 19 different species from 59 reef sites. These rescued corals are all currently in holding at 20 different AZA facilities and 7 non-AZA facilities in 14 different states, staged to play their part in captive breeding programs and contribute to restoration efforts of Florida’s Coral Reef. Information such as species type and the location of where the corals were collected can be viewed on the Coral Rescue - Coral Monitoring Dashboard.

Pilot coral rescue efforts began from ahead of the disease boundary in September 2018, when 102 colonies were carefully collected by Coral Rescue Team divers and partners from three reef sites and corals were maintained in tanks at Keys Marine Lab on Long Key, Florida. Unfortunately, the spread of SCTLD was faster than the ability to conduct day trips out of Key West to collect corals. Therefore, to accelerate the collection and rescue of corals, 7 multi-day coral rescue cruises into the Marquesas Keys and the Dry Tortugas were conducted by the Coral Rescue Team on a live aboard dive vessel, the M/V Makai, with the capacity to collect up to 450 corals per cruise. Corals were collected and maintained on the vessel during the cruise. Once the collections were completed, the Coral Rescue Team and vessel directly delivered the corals to intermediate holding facilities at the University of Miami and Nova Southeastern University. 

Coral Rescue collections are now expanding to inside the disease zone to collect some of the surviving corals to incorporate potentially resilient genetics into gene-banking and propagation efforts, focusing on salvage in advance of coastal construction projects. 

Association of Zoos & Aquariums logo

The Coral Rescue Team acknowledged that one of the most considerable parts of developing the Florida Coral Rescue Plan was to find facilities to house and provide high-level care for collected corals. 

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, or AZA, had the resources, expertise and professionalism to take on this significant conservation challenge. The AZA is a non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of zoos and aquariums in the areas of conservation, education, science, and recreation. The AZA Florida Reef Tract Rescue Project is a collaborative partnership of 20 AZA accredited facilities in 14 states, dedicated to bringing hope to Florida’s Coral Reef. Three AZA facilities are located in Florida including the Florida Aquarium Center for Conservation, the Florida Coral Rescue Center (partnership between Sea World Orlando and Disney Conservation), and Mote Marine Aquarium. In addition to AZA facilities, there are 7 other facilities holding rescue corals that are not part of AZA but are also Coral Rescue partners.

As part of a separate initiative, pillar coral fragments were rescued between 2016 to 2019 to begin gene banking for future restoration efforts. A large number of these rescued pillar corals were held at the Keys Marine Lab, but in March of 2019, they were moved to the Frost Museum in Miami (a non-AZA facility). Other holding facilities for these pillar corals currently include the Florida Aquarium - Center for Conservation in Apollo Beach, the NOAA Hollings Marine Lab in Charleston, SC, and the Coral Restoration Foundation inwater nursery offshore Tavernier in the Florida Keys.

Once corals are collected and in holding, the next steps for rescue corals involve redistributing them across holding and propagation facilities based on species and genetics so they can be propagated (i.e., bred).

Keep in mind that all phases of Coral Rescue are happening at the same time, so we are still doing collections and recruiting additional holding facilities while we are also working on the redistribution of corals, propagation, research and restoration.

Coral Rescue propagation partners are learning to, and succeeding at, propagating corals in land-based facilities. Ten species of rescue corals have been successfully propagated so far which is a first for Florida corals. In November of 2020, the first 300 Coral Rescue offspring produced by the Florida Aquarium – Center for Conservation, were outplanted to restoration reef sites in Miami-Dade County by the University of Miami. Additional offspring will be outplanted in the summer of 2021 for research associated with fish predation and to start identifying the right sizes, number and spacing to improve restoration success.

The Coral Monitoring Dashboard provides summary information about the rescue effort including: number of corals rescued, species rescued and facility currently housed. The dashboard is updated biweekly to monthly, depending on the rescue effort.

View the Dashboard: Coral Rescue – Coral Monitoring Dashboard

Coral Rescue Partners

logos of all partners part of Coral Rescue