Coral Reef Building

“Coral Reef Restoration in the Keys”

For years corals have been dying in the Keys and Caribbean. Elkhorn and staghorn coral are two of the most important because they are fast-growing reef builders that create habitat for marine species. Researchers from Mote Marine Laboratory and the Nature Conservancy harvested 50 staghorn coral fragments from Mote’s coral nursery near Looe Key Marine National Marine Sanctuary and planted them on a reef in 20 feet of water four miles south of Big Pine Key.

“I didn’t have a clue about corals or coral reefs until part way through college,” said Erich Bartels, manager of Mote’s Coral Reef Science and Monitoring Program.”  “I grew up in a quite coastal community in New Jersey and enjoyed surfing growing up. I hoped to study physical oceanography and perhaps work with issues like coastal erosion.  I enrolled at a small Florida college. I had my first experience scuba diving and quickly realized that coral reefs were where my interest was.

“My passion for coral reefs started with my experiences scuba diving. My first few experiences out of college were in the marine aquaculture business, developing methods for truncates underwater to potentially supply the biotechnology companies that were developing anti-cancer drugs from marine organisms. Eventually I was fortunate to find a job working in the Florida Keys as a research assistant with Mote where the chief scientist focused primarily on coral reefs.”

Bartels has been involved with a variety of marine research projects since 1992 and with Mote conducting coral research since 1999.  Staghorn and Elkhorn corals were the first coral species to be listed in 2006 under the federal Endangered Species Act. In 2008 they were listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species.

“Staghorn coral was historically a major reef building coral species found in the waters off Florida and throughout the Caribbean,” said Bartels. “However since the late 1980’s significant declines  in coral coverage worldwide have occurred due to a variety of threats including bleaching, disease, hurricanes, increased predation, algae overgrowth, direct human disturbances, climate change and others. Staghorn coral populations have declined by up to 97% in the US Caribbean.

“One to two meters is the optimum distance for two unrelated corals to cross-fertilize each other when they spawn. You need corals from different parents in proximity to maintain genetic diversity.”

To plant staghorn coral researchers drive a nail into a hard surface on the reef tract, scrub the surface next to the nail with a brush, lay a small glob of epoxy on the clean surface, stick a coral fragment into the epoxy, and attach the coral to the nail with a cable tie. Elkhorn and staghorn corals reproduce in two ways. Asexual fragmentation occurs when fragments are broken off, reattach to a hard surface and start a new colony that is genetically identical to the original colony. Broadcast spawning occurs when coral colonies release millions of gametes which contain sperm and eggs. The gametes burst and the sperm of one colony fertilizes the eggs of another colony. As with many things in life timing is everything. “Fertilization has to occur within the first couple of minutes of spawning,” said Bartels. “That only happens if the colonies are close enough.

“We monitor them shortly after we put them out to make sure they’re properly anchored, We also remove predators like snails. These fast growing corals form dense, three-dimensional thickets contributing significantly to reef growth, island formation, coastal protection and fisheries habitat diversity. Juvenile reef fish, schooling bait fish, large herbivorous and predatory reef fish, and invertebrates are all found associated with staghorn reefs. Much of the methods and technologies either have been or will be applied to other coral restoration efforts throughout the world. Mote is actively involved with developing methods and technologies needed to produce other slower-growing species of coral for eventual reintroduction to degraded reefs.”

Those efforts include restoration on reefs from Brevard County to the Dry Tortugas and in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The project is financed by a $3.3 million grant to The Nature Conservancy through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Thirty thousand coral fragments are in nurseries and the goal is to outplant 8,000 this spring.

“This project has real potential to contribute significantly to the recovery of these threatened species, restore of some of America’s most significant coral reefs, and the fisheries and tourism-based economies they support,” said Bartels.

Although scuba diving in the Keys does have attendant risks being attacked by sharks isn’t one of them. “Jellyfish stings, fire coral, cold water and scrapes,” said Bartels. “Not as safe as sitting at a desk but certainly more fun.”

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