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Tampa, Fl. August 9, 2018- A team of Florida Aquarium scientists and divers just returned after spending 15 days in the Florida Keys for a coral spawn. The team collected 150,000 coral gametes (coral eggs and sperm) during the coral spawn that only happens once a year after a full moon. The team fertilized the eggs and then released thousands back into the wild. The remaining fertilized eggs, or embryos, are being distributed to The Florida Aquarium Center for Conservation, Georgia Aquarium, Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, and Nova Southeastern University to continue research and to grow the coral for a future release.

This comes at a critical time since Florida is in the middle of the largest coral disease outbreak ever recorded, which is rapidly killing 20 different species of coral in the Florida Keys. The staghorn coral species, the primary species that was collected during the coral spawn, is not at immediate threat from the disease. However, it is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Scientists are trying to figure out what's causing the outbreak and how to stop it. The outbreak makes the work on reproducing corals even more important because it’s necessary to raise their offspring.

“This work is more critical than ever due to the current disease outbreak in the Florida Keys,” said Keri O’Neil, Coral Nursery Manager for The Florida Aquarium. “These laboratory fertilization techniques can be used to save many coral species in the future.”

O’Neil believes practicing the techniques could restock Florida's damaged reefs with the corals raised in the laboratory at The Florida Aquarium’s Center for Conservation in Apollo Beach. The lab already houses corals collected from last year’s spawn that will be celebrating their one year birthday and will be released back into the ocean later this year.

The gametes were collected from the Coral Restoration Foundation Coral Nursery, with the work conducted by permit from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The team worked with several partners including the Keys Marine Laboratory, Coral Restoration Foundation, Nova Southeastern University, University of Florida, South-East Zoo Alliance for Reproduction and Conservation (SEZARC), Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, Sea World, Georgia Aquarium, and Horniman Museum and Gardens.

“I think it’s a really good example of the strengths in partnerships that The Florida Aquarium has formed to help save coral reefs,” said O’Neil.

***B-Roll of the Coral Spawn from Underwater Photographers:


More on The Florida Aquarium:

  • Voted a Top 3 Aquarium in North America by the readers of USA Today (May 2018)
  • Earned Trip Advisor Hall of Fame Rating (2018)
  • Earned a 4-Star rating from Charity Navigator (2018)

Additional information on Coral:

  • Corals are not plants, they're actually animals.
  • Called “the rainforests of the sea,” coral reefs only take up about 2% of the ocean floor, but host about 25% of all ocean species.
  • Coral reefs grow very slowly, at an average rate of just two centimeters per year.
  • Each individual coral is known as a polyp.
  • The annual synchronized spawning of corals is a spectacular event.
  • This mass reproduction only happens once a year.
  • It involves colonies and species of coral polyps simultaneously releasing tiny egg and sperm bundles into the water.

The Florida Aquarium to assist in recovery effort of Florida’s coral reef following hurricane damage

Top: A team during one of the first assessment trips to assess the damage of Florida's coral reefs after hurricane damage. From left to right: Laurie MacLaughlin (NOAA Florida Keys Sanctuary); Jessica Levy (Coral Restoration Foundation); Mark Riss; Deb Riss; Dave Grenda (The Florida Aquarium volunteers); Brenda Altmeier (NOAA Florida Keys Sanctuary); and Dave Rintoul (The Florida Aquarium Dive Safety Officer) Left: The Florida Aquarium's Dave Safety Officer, Dave Rintoul, attaches coral fragments to an existing coral tree in the Coral Restoration Foundation's nursery. These activities were conducted under permit FKNMS-2015-133-A1. Right: Coral Restoration Foundation staff member Jessica Levy surveying health of corals at Sombrero Key.
What: After assessing the damage caused by Hurricane Irma on Florida’s coral reefs, The Florida Aquarium is helping the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other organizations repair the damage and help the reef recover. The Aquarium will be providing triage support including repositioning overturned, centuries old boulder corals; reattaching broken and fragmented pieces of coral; and removing debris.

When: The team will be traveling to the Florida Keys from Nov. 12-18,

Where: The Florida Aquarium, 701 Channelside Drive, Tampa, Florida.

For more information on the assessment and recovery initiative:

After assessing the damage caused by Hurricane Irma on Florida’s coral reefs, The Florida Aquarium is helping the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other organizations repair the damage and help the reef recover. The Aquarium will be by providing triage support including repositioning overturned, centuries old boulder corals; reattaching broken and fragmented pieces of coral; and removing debris.

Coral reefs cover two percent of the ocean floor but are home to 25 percent of marine life in the ocean. They provide critical habitat for other species such as sea turtles, dolphins and sharks, as well as help protect coastlines from storms.

“Healthy coral reefs are adapted to withstand hurricanes. In fact, they protect shorelines by dissipating wave energy, but the reef ecosystem in the Florida Keys has been heavily compromised and is found in small patches compared to what once existed. So when a huge hurricane like Irma hits, damage to corals can be devastating. They now need our help to recover. A healthy, living and thriving reef means a healthy, living and thriving ocean,” said Margo McKnight Senior VP of Conservation, Research and Husbandry at The Florida Aquarium.

Last month, assessments of the Florida coral reef tract following hurricane Irma showed significant impact on natural coral reefs and manmade ocean-based coral nurseries throughout the Florida Keys and Dry Tortugas, as well as the broader Caribbean.

Large hurricanes can cause extensive damage on land, as well as under the sea, especially for corals that cannot leave their home to flee for safety.

Initial assessments of more than 50 sites revealed extensive shifting of sand and heavy sediment accumulation on the corals and sponges, which can smother and prevent them from getting enough sunlight, as well as some structural damage to individual corals and the reef itself. A full report is expected later this fall.

To help assist in the recovery of corals on the continental United States’ only barrier coral reef, The Florida Aquarium is helping NOAA, federal and state governmental agencies, academic institutions and other nonprofit organizations perform emergency recovery/restoration and assist with the stabilization and recovery of corals that sustained damage following the hurricane.

“During the assessment trips, it was very eye-opening to see these hundred-year-old corals snapped in two, with broken pieces sprawled all throughout the ocean floor. The assessment process identified damaged areas of the coral reef tract that could benefit from triage and restoration, so this next trip is to visit some of those sites and help stabilize them,” said Keri O’Neil, Coral Nursery Manager at The Florida Aquarium.

The Florida reef tract, much of which lies within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Biscayne Bay National Park, contains seven coral species designated as threatened.

The Florida Aquarium staff will leave to travel to the Keys to help repair certain coral sites on Sunday, Nov. 12. Dive and repair days are Nov. 13 – 17, and the team will return home on Nov. 18. The Florida Aquarium will send updates with photos and videos during the assessment days, as possible.

This massive initiative involves several branches of NOAA, National Park Service, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Nova Southeastern University, Coral Restoration Foundation, The Nature Conservancy-Florida and The Florida Aquarium, with funding provided through a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and administered through the Coral Restoration Foundation.

The Florida Aquarium is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization whose mission is to entertain, educate and inspire stewardship about our natural environment. The Florida Aquarium is accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA).
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