By KEVIN SPEAR, Orlando Sentinel
The great rescue of Florida’s corals from devastating disease has taken a major step forward with the transfer of two batches of gnarled cacti and flower cup corals from their Orlando refuge.
The Florida Coral Rescue Center in South Orlando is raising the largest collection of Florida corals imported from the wild just before a rapid plague along the southeastern coast of the state and the Keys.
A batch of 22 coral colonies, each roughly the size of a soccer ball, were sent to the SEA LIFE Orlando Aquarium on International Drive. Another group of 12 were airlifted to Adventure Aquarium in Camden, New Jersey.
In a hasty, unprecedented and on-deck response to prevent coral extinctions, nearly 2,000 species have been in the care of 22 aquariums in 14 states for over a year, all coordinated by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums .
Captive corals have thrived enough and aquariums have become proficient enough that specimens can be moved between aquariums to make the best use of space, group corals more methodically according to their type, and set the stage for the next phase – a program massive breeding.
The Adventure Aquarium recently built another large reservoir and, with the recent expedition, has become a major repository of coral from the Marquesas Keys, west of Key West.
“It’s a huge effort and for us to be a part of it, which is why we are entering this industry, to be able to make a difference,” said Travis Kraker, senior biologist at Adventure Aquarium.
Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease has swept 19 species along the Florida reefs with surprising speed. Scientists do not know whether a virus or bacteria is the main culprit behind the disease. Treatment of affected corals with antibiotics has shown promise, but it is not clear whether these treatments target the cause of the disease or secondary infections.
Scientists also suspect that corals are weakened by warming waters due to climate change.
Rob Ruzicka, director of coral research at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, said he and other scientists closely monitor the number of days that reef waters exceed 31 degrees Celsius, or nearly 88 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures above this threshold are linked to distress of corals such as bleaching and disease proliferation.
“Every summer the water temperature does not reach 31 degrees, but the frequency with which it does and the length of time that temperatures above 31 degrees are maintained have increased dramatically over the past 20 years,” did he declare.
The corals were collected from the wild from 2018 to early last year. Further collections are planned if the corals manage to re-establish themselves on the reefs decimated by the disease.
(Popular on OrlandoSentinel.com) Orlando’s concerns over the shortage of liquid oxygen caused by COVID are becoming increasingly serious ”
Corals from other parts of the world have been captive-bred for years and are well known. But Florida has long banned the capture of its wild corals, and little was known about how to care for them in aquariums.
Over the past year, rescued corals have steadily increased in size and visible hardiness. Coral keepers are now confident in their ability to breed specimens in captivity, leading to the certainty that specimens can be shipped to other states.
“You almost wouldn’t recognize the corals in these tanks because they are so different,” said Ruzicka, who helped ship the corals from the Orlando Rescue Center.
“We dive a lot and it’s remarkable to see the differences between the corals here and what we see in nature, because in nature they face so many stressors,” said Ruzicka. “Here they have wonderful food, they have wonderful water quality and a wonderful environment. This is what corals look like when they go on vacation.
The Florida Coral Rescue Center is located in a large unmarked warehouse off the Orange Blossom Trail. Its windows are blacked out as part of precise control over the timing and intensity of the light exposed to the corals.
The installation is a collaboration of SeaWorld, Disney Conservation and the Florida Fish & Wildlife Foundation. It started receiving corals in the spring of last year.
Each piece of coral, or head of coral, is made up of a mass of tiny animals called polyps that form a rock-like skeleton. They were affixed to 6 inch by 6 inch terra cotta tiles. Since then, many specimens have grown too large for these tiles.
“It’s a little bittersweet, but it’s nice to know they’re going somewhere else where they can increase the population,” said Jelani Reynolds, a member of the SeaWorld team who has been looking after the corals for a year. . “Go and have plenty of babies.”
A full plan on what to do with the rescued corals is still underway as scientists watch for signs that the disease of coral tissue loss is on the decline. They also hope to research genetically evolved corals to resist disease, warmer waters and other stresses.
“You need this cosmopolitan mix of defenses against all of these things,” Ruzicka said. “They’re going to have to face a lot of things when they get back.”
Nearly 2,000 corals are supported by 22 aquariums in 14 states, all coordinated by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
The cooperative effort is extraordinary for the number of participating organizations, but follows a similar approach to manatee rescue and care.
The Manatee Rehabilitation Partnership was established in 2001 and is now responding to the state’s worst manatee mass mortality, which was triggered by an ecosystem collapse along the state’s east coast.
Coral disease has inflicted an 80 percent death rate on the affected reefs. The surviving corals tend to be small and young.
“It killed the corals that were big, older, decades or hundreds of years old,” Ruzicka said. “These are the ones that reproduce the most.”
For now, the goal of rescuing corals is to refine the know-how of caring for them, and then transfer that skill to fostering a huge population that will eventually be reintroduced to Florida waters.
“We don’t know much about their genetics or their population structure,” said Stephanie Schopmeyer, a researcher at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.
This is part of why the coral colonies were moved from the Florida Coral Rescue Center to SEA LIFE and Adventure Aquarium in New Jersey.
Taking a cautious approach, corals collected from different areas of the Florida Reef are not mixed. But the corals taken from the same reefs are distributed in several aquariums.
“We try to space them out so that we don’t put all of our eggs in one basket,” Schopmeyer said.
(Popular on OrlandoSentinel.com) Central Florida firefighters tackle wildfires in extreme heat in the west ”
With techniques borrowed from commercial coral producers, the task of shipping precious corals via airliners verges on meticulousness.
Earlier this week, the Florida Coral Rescue Center team, working with a team from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, prepared 12 coral heads for a flight from Orlando to the Philadelphia International Airport.
Their work began at 7 a.m., placing individual corals in plastic baskets lined in places with rolled bubble wrap.
Each basket was tucked away in a durable plastic bag that was inserted into another bag, which was then placed in hard foam bins.
Each inner bag was filled with several gallons of seawater. Air was forced out of each bag, which was then filled with pure oxygen and sealed. Each foam tray was slipped into a tightly fitting cardboard box sealed with duct tape.
In this packaging, the corals could survive for two to three days.
The cargo, weighing a total of 620 pounds and costing $ 850 in airline tickets, was placed on a Southwest Airlines flight in the early afternoon.
“They landed around 3 pm,” Kraker said. “We got them in the car around 3:45 am, we came back here to the aquarium around 4:30 am and everyone was in their aquarium around 6 am. “
L’Aventure Aquarium has exhibited corals from the Indian and Pacific Oceans for at least 15 years. In 2019, the aquarium collected 60 heads of coral from Florida waters.
Kraker said the aquarium was unsure of what to come next other than taking more precise care of the corals, including the quality and intensity of the lighting, and understanding at what speed they would grow.
Florida’s corals are not on display to the public except for behind-the-scenes tours, but may potentially be on display.
“When we first had corals we thought we had extra room, but after six months it was like, I don’t know, they were growing pretty quickly and we didn’t want to run out of space. “
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has set up a public website, posting the whereabouts of 19 species of coral collected from 71 reef areas along the Florida coast.
Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.