Scientists with Mote Marine Laboratory will begin a yearlong effort this summer to restore about 25,000 corals in the Florida Keys. State lawmakers approved a $500,000 appropriation for the project in this year’s state legislative session.
The taxpayer funding will support Mote scientists’ efforts to grow coral in nurseries before transplanting them in the Florida reef tract between Bahia Honda and Key West. “These funds appropriated by the state are going to be kind of our first big step in order to take that reef functionality back and make our reefs healthier a decade from now than they are even today,” said, Erinn Muller, Ph.D., the Manager of Mote’s Coral Health and Disease Research Program.
Mote maintains an offshore staghorn coral nursery that has allowed them to restore nearly 10,000 corals over the past decade. Mote scientists also have a land-based nursery focused on slower-growing coral varieties like brain and boulder corals for restoration as well.
Mote researchers have spearheaded a revolutionary technique for generating coral growth at a dramatically accelerated rate called microfragmentation.
“Take one large colony and you chop it up into hundreds of little tiny pieces and that fragmentation that occurs increases the growth rate up to sometimes ten to forty times faster than what we would expect in a natural reef environment,” said Muller.
“Then we can out-plant them once they get large enough, back out onto the reef, so that they grow and fuse back together if they came from the same parent colony and create a one hundred year old colony in its size and functionality, but we can do it within a matter of a few years.”
Muller’s research involves screening coral genotypes for resistance and resilience to environmental stressors like ocean acidification (declining pH levels) and warming ocean temperatures. She said that can help make coral restoration efforts more effective.
“ For example, if I know there’s this particular strain of coral is very susceptible to high water temperatures, we can put them on a reef that’s a little bit deeper; that’s going to be buffered from temperature change a little bit more than shallow water reefs,” said Muller.
“I can also identify a strain of coral that is susceptible to ocean acidification. We can put that on a reef that’s buffered by sea grass because sea grass actually increases the pH of its local environment. So we can put corals that are susceptible to low pH within that reef environment and increase the probability of these corals surviving through time.”
Muller said this ‘smart growth’ approach ensures taxpayers are getting the most bang for their buck.
“We’re getting taxpayer money from the state. We want to make sure that the corals we put out there are not just going to die next year or five years from now. We want to put the corals out there that are still going to be alive a hundred years from now in the locations that are going to be most likely to foster restoration, recovery and functionality within a coral reef environment.”
Aside from the many organisms that rely on healthy coral, reef sites in the Keys have a $6 billion a year economic impact in terms of attracting anglers and tourists and are the basis for some 71,000 jobs in the state.
Marine scientists say coral reef restoration efforts are vital. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Coral Reef Evaluation and Monitoring Program documents a roughly 50 percent decline in coral cover on reef sites they’ve been monitoring over the past twenty-one years.