A Massive Florida Coral Reef Rescue Project is Underway

In Orlando Florida resides the Florida Coral Rescue Center. This center is made possible by SeaWorld Orlando, Disney Conservation Fund, Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, NOAA and multiple additional marine, science and conservation organizations.

The Florida Coral Rescue Center – Image Source: Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel

The center opened in late March / early April of 2020 in response to the Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease epidemic. This disease has become an increasingly serious issue for Florida’s 360 miles of barrier reef line. The disease is also being reported in Jamaica, Mexico, Saint Maarten, the US Virgin Islands and the Dominican Republic.

In 2014, the disease was discovered and has been monitored closely ever since. In 2015, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and numerous other partners from the federal level, state level, local government and non-governmental organizations, universities and members of the community began to collaborate and to try to resolve the issue. Since then the disease has unfortunately infected 95% of the state’s coral reefs.

Map of the Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease occurrence across the State of Florida – Image Source: The Florida Department of Environmental Protection

In 2018 leaders from both the state of Florida as well as leaders from the federal government sprang into action and launched their rescue plan. The plan was to obtain a good amount of each species of coral and hold them in aquariums. This way they could test them to find a cure for the disease as well as grow them out in order to repopulate the areas of the reef that have been damaged by the disease. The facility that was purchased to use for these efforts was used prior as an aquarium aquaculture facility for the aquarium hobby. A $1.3 million dollar budget to be utilized over a 3 year period in order to fix this problem was donated by the private and public sectors. This allowed the facility to be converted into a coral rescue facility as well as to address the financial needs of running a facility for this purpose.

Aaron Gavin a coral biologist at SeaWorld Orlando is seen here feeding some coral that are being grown in the Florida Coral Rescue Center. Image Source: Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel

Currently, an extensive genetics study is being conducted in order to discover which genes resist the disease. From there, scientists and biologists can figure out how to rid the reefs of the disease and grow the coral in such a way that it can build an immunity to it. Similar to gene therapy that is conducted on humans.

A variety of Florida corals are pictured here that are being grown and studied at the Florida Coral Rescue Center in Orlando Florida – Image Source: Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel

Before these efforts began ~$16 million had been funded since 2015 in order to combat the Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease. This covered the extensive costs of surveys, monitoring, sampling, laboratory analysis, data management, epidemiology analysis, experiments, field trials and more.

Out of the 40 species of coral that make up Florida’s coral barrier reef line, half are very susceptible to the disease. These species are the foundation of the coral reef. Without them, the coral reef does not exist. With the gravity of the situation in Florida among other neighboring coral reefs, in addition to the Florida Coral Rescue Center and the organizations mentioned previously, these other facilities are also holding, studying and growing these species as well:

So this is an all hands on deck effort and a HUGE conservation win! A HUGE thank you to everyone who is involved!

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