We all know that coral reefs are in peril around the globe, and the Florida Keys are no exception. The good news is that a diverse group of coral reef management and conservation leaders has banded together to respond to this environmental crisis and save Florida’s coral reefs. The Orlando-based Florida Coral Rescue Center (FCRC) is a state-of-the-art facility established for gene banking and caring for Florida corals rescued from reefs that have not yet been affected by the stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD) that is sweeping across the Florida Reef Tract.
As part of a national network of coral holding or gene-banking facilities coordinated by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, the FCRC is the largest facility of its kind in the U.S. and provides a safe, stable environment for coral colonies to receive world-class care from a team of coral experts. It will play a significant role in the future of Florida’s Coral Reef.
Under the guidance of the AZA, the group consists of resource management agencies like Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and NOAA Fisheries, zoological facilities such as SeaWorld, and funding organizations including the Disney Conservation Fund, Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida, Bass Pro Shops, Cabela’s Outdoor Fund, World Wide Corals Inc. and the Edith and Curtis Munson Foundation. These partners provide the funding, resources and expertise to help ensure there is a future for Florida corals.
“AZA is proud of the incredible collaboration between our accredited zoo and aquarium members, like Disney and SeaWorld, their financial commitment, and their investment of time and talent to help save this natural treasure,” said Dan Ashe, president and CEO of AZA. “Being able to share our global network of animal care and welfare experts and our coral management expertise is inspiring. A monumental undertaking like this is another demonstration of why zoos and aquariums are so vital to conservation. The coordinated, multi-facility AZA-Florida Reef Tract Rescue Project and the Florida Coral Rescue Center show that, together, we can make a difference for Florida’s reefs for future generations to share.”
A Different Mating Game
Rescuing corals is only the first step. Ultimately, many corals will be needed for restoration efforts, requiring the rescued corals to reproduce and produce offspring. Since many of the rescue coral species have never been held in human care, aquarists have had a lot to learn about feeding, correct lighting and proper water flow. Apparently, they are doing a great job as the corals have begun to reproduce.
Corals can reproduce sexually and asexually. Sexual reproduction provides the most genetic diversity among offspring due to the mixing of egg and sperm genetic material from the parents. Sexually reproduced corals are unique individuals while offspring produced by asexual reproduction are identical to the parent. Over the past year, FCRC corals have taken a huge step forward on their own and have been reproducing asexually, producing “gemmae” offspring.
Gemmae are identical to their parents. While not the optimum candidate for restoration in larger numbers, these coral clones ensure the genetic contribution of their rescued parents will continue to be part of Florida’s coral reef. Reproduction is a positive sign that the corals in the care of the FCRC are getting all that they need, not just to survive but thrive.
To follow the work of the FCRC, visit WildlifeFlorida.org.
“The Foundation was thrilled to help get the ‘lights turned on’ at the FCRC (or off, as the corals prefer). We’re hopeful this partnership of state agencies, companies and nonprofit organizations can serve as a model to tackle other significant environmental challenges as they arise.”Andrew Walker, president and CEO of the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida
“At the Center, we are caring for hundreds of corals, representing 19 species, that have little to no history in human care. This project is a unique challenge, and we’re having a profound impact on the future of Florida coral reefs.”Aaron Gavin, a SeaWorld/FCRC Aquaris
“One of the most rewarding parts about working on this project at the FCRC is being able to see the incredible amount of growth these corals have had since they have been here. When collected, each coral is mounted on a terracotta tile that serves as a stable base or anchor for the coral in the aquarium. The corals brought here in March 2020 are doing so well they need to be given larger tile bases.”Sara Urbanski, SeaWorld, FCRC Aquaris