How SSC is helping protect Florida’s threatened corals

 

Rob Royer | Senior Aquarist

SSC Senior Aquarist Rob Royer examining corals.

Coral reefs are one of the most biodiverse and productive ecosystems on Earth, home to more than a quarter of all marine species, including fish, mollusks, sea turtles, whales, dolphins, birds and more. Coral reefs protect coastlines from storms and erosion, provide jobs for local communities, and offer opportunities for food, recreation and even medicine. 

Unfortunately, coral reef ecosystems are disappearing at an unprecedented rate. Threats include diseases, pollution, sedimentation, unsustainable fishing practices, and rising ocean temperatures and ocean acidification. These issues may cause physical damage to these delicate ecosystems often stressing coral animals, leading to bleaching and death. 

In January 2020, Seacoast Science Center (SSC) opened Restoring Reefs, a compelling exhibition that helps visitors understand the ecological importance of warm and cold water coral reef habitats. The focal point of the exhibit is two large, colorful tanks inhabited by tropical fishes and corals. Prior to the opening of the exhibit, SSC’s Senior Aquarist Rob Royer worked with the Coral Restoration Foundation in Florida to gain skills needed to build a sustainable living coral display. SSC’s aquarist team has continued to advance the Center’s position to grow and sustain corals. 

Since 2014, the Florida Reef Tract has been experiencing a historic outbreak of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease. Over 90% of the Florida Reef Tract has been affected, impacting 22 of Florida’s 45 species reef-building stony corals, including five corals on the Endangered Species List. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and National Park Service are leading the response and based on the expertise gained through Restoring Reefs, have asked Seacoast Science Center to participate in the nationwide “reef-banking” effort. 

Smooth Flower Coral (Eusmilia fastigiata)

Seacoast Science Center is one of 30 holding facilities in the United States to accommodate disease-free rescue corals from the Florida Reef Tract. Healthy corals collected from the Lower Florida Keys region are being cultivated at SSC for the purpose of gene banking and restoration stock for recolonization activities. This is a long term project, and SSC expects to care for these living corals for many years. Scientists are working to learn more about the disease and restoration efforts that will need to take place for these very important habitats to start to recover. 

Seacoast Science Center is honored to be a part of this nationwide conservation effort. It is the Center’s mission to increase our understanding and inspire conservation of our marine and coastal environment. Plans are underway to relocate the coral holding tanks to be publicly displayed and the conservation story can be shared. To keep up-to-date, subscribe to SSC’s email list here and follow them us Facebook and Instagram.

Ridged Cactus Coral (Mycetophyllia lamarckiana)

Knobby Cactus Coral (Mycetophyllia aliciae)

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