Rescued Florida corals are ready to return to the ocean
Florida is home to the third largest barrier reef in the world, and the only living barrier reef in the continental U.S.
But high temperatures over the summer put the Florida Keys Reef Tract in jeopardy.
Cynthia Lewis is the director of the Florida Institute of Oceanography’s Keys Marine Laboratory (KML). The Institute is hosted by the University of South Florida.
When the water got too hot earlier this year, scientists retrieved over 5,000 coral from nurseries to try and save them.
"Some of these corals and species were terribly stressed when they came in, with very little hope of recovery. But everybody gave it their best shot," she said.
Now the seawater temperatures are finally cool enough for scientists to return the rescued coral to the reef tract, according to Lewis.
But before that, the coral will first go through a health inspection process. After that, it has a 30-day quarantine period where scientists monitor their health.
Lewis described the coral nurseries as "floating Christmas trees in the middle of the ocean."
"And all of the ornaments are actually the corals that are hanging in the water, growing in the water," she said. "This water was so hot that they had to actually take these corals off of these nursery trees and bring them into our facility."
The KML facility used tubs of temperature-controlled seawater systems to help the coral recover.
The elevated water temperatures are one of the biggest dangers to coral reefs and can cause potentially fatal bleaching events.
That's when the coral expels algae, causing it to turn white and essentially starving the coral.
When temperatures in July hit highs not normally seen until August and September, scientists from several partners across the state brought the heat-stressed corals to KML to recover.
Lewis said the heat-stressed coral is doing better. Over the next several weeks to months, corals will be reattached to the natural reef using epoxy, cement, zip ties, and nails, according to a press release.
"I think these coral that will be going back out have an excellent chance of survival until the next time we have an elevated water temperatures and a bleaching event, which could happen again next year, it may be a couple of years, we don't know," Lewis said.
She added that scientists are better prepared if it happens again.
"We've learned an awful lot, we've got things in place, we definitely need this capacity for these land-based systems to be able to hold these corals temporarily in a situation like that," she said. "But ultimately, what we've done, is we've preserved the genetic diversity."
And genetic diversity is what KML need to breed coral that is stronger and more resilient to bleaching, according to Lewis.
"But this takes time," she said. "And climate change is happening more quickly than corals can adapt, because many of these corals are hundreds of years old, and they weren't meant for these kinds of conditions."
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