Magazine Post: Reef to Refuge

Reef to Refuge

Bringing Hope to Florida’s Coral Reef

By Beth Firchau

Aquariums and zoos across the country, including Riverbanks Zoo and Gardens in South Carolina, took part in AZA’s coral reef restoration and rescue initiative.

The Florida Reef Tract has stood resilient for decades; beaten by ocean warming, acidification and water-born pollution, it has survived. 

Much like the Grand Canyon, Yosemite or the Great Lakes, the Florida Reef Tract is a natural treasure that belongs to us all. The reef provides nurseries, hunting grounds and homes to thousands of species of marine life. It is a first line of defense against powerful Atlantic storms that threaten the coastline. Generating over $8 billion in revenue and over 70,000 jobs annually, it is also an important driver of economic activity in the region. 

Now a new threat, Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (see article in Guy Harvey Magazine issue 36), has the reef on its knees. Since 2014, this aggressive, fast-moving disease has plagued the Florida Reef Tract. As of 2020, the disease has swept through most of the 360-mile reef system, leaving only the Dry Tortugas at the most southern end relatively untouched. Reports indicate that greater than 60% of total coral cover loss has occurred in disease-affected areas. While species-specific declines differ, the most susceptible of species have seen declines of over 98%.

Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease affects more than 20 of the 45 coral species that provide the foundation of the coral reef ecosystem. For these susceptible corals, it is almost always a 100% mortality event. To put in perspective, historically along the Florida Reef Tract, disease is present in about 2–3% of the coral population. With Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease, more than 60% of the reef’s coral population has been affected. 

A Rescue Brings Hope

Late in 2019, scientists and conservation managers from NOAA Fisheries, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the National Park Service, NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection devised a daring rescue plan — bringing hope for the reef. 

While scientists and field researchers would work to determine the identity of the disease, how it spreads, and how to prevent or cure it, susceptible coral species would be removed ahead of the disease’s progression. These corals would be placed in land-based nurseries for safe keeping. What was needed was expertise and space to hold the thousands of corals needed to secure the coral genetic biodiversity of the pre-disease reef communities. 

“Aquariums and zoos had long been carrying out cutting edge conservation work with corals, and we knew that Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facilities had the experience, knowledge, network, and the space to step forward and fill the need,” said Dan Ashe, president and chief executive officer of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums based in Silver Spring, Maryland. “The challenge was that most of the rescued coral species had never been held before, but we were confident that, with the professional aquarists we have on staff and remarkable facilities that are available, that we would be able to take a leading role in this rescue.”  

In the fall of 2018, AZA was invited by the rescue planners to become custodians of corals from the reef. Corals quickly began arriving at AZA facilities across the country. By the end 2020, even as the world addressed the COVID-19 crisis, nearly 2,000 corals had been shipped by boat, plane, and truck for safe keeping at 18 AZA-accredited facilities in 12 states. Never before had such a large-scale rescue response to a coral crisis been mounted. 

Federal, state and private partners collaborated to place corals in these areas: Connecticut and Michigan; coastal cities of Texas and New Jersey; the farmlands of Ohio, Iowa and Nebraska; the mountains of Colorado; and in the Southern metro areas of Georgia and South Carolina. In early 2020, NOAA Fisheries estimated that of the total $14.6 million invested in this coral rescue effort between 2018 and the end of 2020, more than $9 million had been contributed by AZA facilities. Never before had the AZA or its member facilities mounted such a rapid response to a marine crisis.

Good Stewardship

It takes time, dedication and perseverance to respond this quickly and effectively to save a national natural treasure.

Having a timely response to any health issue is the key to managing any animal long term. For rescue corals, it is fortunate that the holding facilities have a strong, dynamic and creative team of veterinarians, lab technicians, biologists and field researchers. More than 100 of the nation’s best animal care professionals are working together to bring hope to Florida’s corals. 

The rescue of corals from the Florida reef system will not fix the reef. Finding the cause and cure of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease will not fix the reef. Only public engagement that insists upon good stewardship of our natural resources will ultimately fix the reef. 

The rescued Florida corals and the AZA foster parents that care for them are looking to that future.  

What you can do at home to help Florida corals:

» Learn all you can about our ocean and the part reefs play in its health. Encourage others to do the same.

» No matter where you live, insist on responsible ecosystem management and reward appropriate management with your vote and your tax dollars.

» Visit or become a member of your local AZA-accredited zoo or aquarium. Responsible conservation starts at home, and many zoos and aquariums fund conservation efforts, like the Florida coral rescue, through gate admissions, memberships and the generosity of local donors.

AZA Florida Reef Tract Rescue Project (AZA-FRTRP)

List of AZA Facilities Engaged in Coral Rescue Efforts

Mote Marine Aquarium
Sarasota, FL

Blank Park Zoo
Des Moines, IA

Butterfly Pavilion
Westminster, CO

Columbus Zoo and Aquarium
Columbus, OH

The Florida Aquarium
Tampa, FL

Florida Coral Rescue Center
Orlando, FL

Adventure Aquarium
Camden, NJ

Fort Worth Zoo
Fort Worth, TX

Georgia Aquarium
Atlanta, GA

Jenkinson’s Aquarium
Point Pleasant Beach, NJ

Maritime Aquarium
Norwalk, CT

National Aquarium
Baltimore, MD

National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium
Dubuque, IA

Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo
Omaha, NE

Moody Gardens
Galveston, TX

Riverbanks Zoo & Garden
Columbia, SC

SEA LIFE Michigan Aquarium
Auburn Hills, MI

Texas State Aquarium
Corpus Christi, TX

Nashville Zoo, Inc
Nashville, TN

Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center
Virginia Beach, VA


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