Our coral reefs are dying – Part 2

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There is no doubt our coral reefs are important to the future of saltwater fishing and boating. The current and projected loss of reefs, both worldwide and in our country from Hawaii to Maine, is an issue with which we in the marine industry can identify.

In Part 1 in this blog last Tuesday, I discussed some of the problems. In Part 2, I’m glad to say that the issues are not going unaddressed. Indeed, there are marine scientists, biologists and even astronauts working to turn things around in ways you might not expect.

Cuba, for example, is playing a key role. Why Cuba? It turns out Cuba is home to some of the world’s last healthy coral reefs. The reason they are still pristine is unclear. Some speculate Cuba doesn’t generate the phosphorus runoff and waste that major industrialized nations send into the seas creating dead zones, triggering coral bleaching and causing disease that kills coral. Sound thinking.

The bottom line is more than half of Florida’s and the Caribbean’s coral reefs, which are home to more than 4,000 species of fish, have died, according to studies by the International Coral Reef Initiative.

The news isn’t all bad, however. Organizations like the Florida Aquarium and the National Aquarium of Cuba are collaborating on coral reef restoration initiatives — ways to replenish dying reefs. For example, a lot of emphasis is put on ways to breed fast-growing staghorn coral, a critical coral for reef building. In tanks near Tampa, successful experiments have documented staghorn coral semen can be cryogenically frozen, later thawed and still fertilize an egg. It opens the door for coral sperm to be banked and later used to repopulate a reef.

Similarly, the Smithsonian Institute has proven this same freezing-thawing process can be successful with other types of coral. The goal of groups involved in reef rebuilding research is to find ways to bank the most viable coral from throughout the Caribbean.

In coral “greenhouses” in the U.S. and Cuba different corals may be grown and experiments bringing sperm and eggs from different genotypes together for reproduction can be conducted in a controlled environment. A companion underwater coral “nursery” operated by the Florida Aquarium in Key Largo is currently stocked with different genotypes.

From the nursery, scientists collect a variety of spawn to mix genotypes back in the lab. The end game is to release thousands of baby coral back onto the reefs.

It’s not just aquariums involved in the work to find ways to replenish reefs. Beside those already noted, others include: University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences; South-East Zoo Alliance for Reproduction & Conservation; Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network affiliated organizations; Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission; among others.

And, yes, even America’s astronauts are helping grow coral down deep. Marine Scientists at Florida International University are studying coral growing in deep waters. The school recruited astronauts to plant a coral nursery in 90 feet of water in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

At FIU’s underwater laboratory, named “Aquarius Reef Base,” NASA trains astronauts. It’s reported that dives from the surface to the nursery would be too short and risky to accomplish much work there. But divers living in the pressurized lab for days or even weeks can work longer in the deep waters. Astronauts reported planted a nursery of endangered corals on treelike structures made from plastic pipes three years ago. They have continued work in the nursery during NASA training mission ever since.

I suppose it would be easy to just say “let the scientists handle it.” But the reality is that coral reefs are a very important economic engine, increasing activities through better fishing, boating, diving and overall tourism. Moreover, healthy reefs limit the potentially devastating impacts of storm surge on our coasts.

Finally, research is now making it apparent that coral reefs decline as fast in so-called “No-Take Reserves” as in areas that allow fishing in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. There’s an important lesson here — that recent efforts to simply cut off areas from fishing and other recreational activities on the premise that corals will grow back simply doesn’t hold water. This is reason enough for boaters to be engaged in and supportive of realistic, science-based reef restoration programs. 

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