ORLANDO, Fla. — Coral reefs are titans in the water and making sure they're around for the next generation has become a priority in Florida. Several groups, including SeaWorld, Disney, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and the Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida, are working day and night on a project that was a secret until recently.
The second a person walks in, he or she know it is not an average aquarium. Water tanks and Ultraviolet lighting illuminate a prized possession for researchers.
"It's so gratifying to see how this came together so quickly from a mere concept 18 months ago to what it is today," said Andrew Walker, president and CEO of the Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida.
A week after the pandemic began, the Florida Coral Rescue Center opened. It's comprised of 18 aquariums, nearly 6,000 gallons of water and an on-site staff of four people working 24/7 to carefully and methodically look after 753 corals.
"You have something that is state-of-the-art, and that's exactly where we are standing," said Jim Kinsler, SeaWorld aquarium curator and facility manager.
He's worked at SeaWorld for 27 years and oversees this marine fortress. Nowhere in the country will you find a larger facility devoted to coral reefs -- and not just any coral.
The corals at the center were taken from Florida's Reef Tract, which begins in Martin County and runs the perimeter of the peninsula to the Dry Tortugas.
All were saved before being destroyed by stony coral tissue loss disease, which is spreading like wildfire. These are very healthy, and things are about to get even better.
"The nice thing about corals is, if you can figure out how they breed, they produce a lot of offspring," said Dr. Andy Stamper, conservation science manager for Disney's Animals, Science and Environment.
The center has one goal -- keep the coral alive and reproduce more. However, they are one of the most expensive animals in a zoo community to maintain and multiply. The price tag is about $150,000 a year, and that comes with one big responsibility.
Protecting the coral is of utmost importance. The center has a state-of-the-art security system complete with alarms. Every tank has a computer probe in it. Researchers know if water quality is compromised or if the lights go out. Someone is immediately notified and able to respond if there's a problem.
It's a team effort knowing what is at stake and the reward that will soon pay off. The goal here is to get more coral reproduced to put more coral back in the ocean.
"You can think of these as parents or the founders, as we call them in genetic terms," said Kinsler.
Their offspring will eventually be moved from here back to Florida's reef system to help the overall survivability of this global indicator.
"Coral reefs are really the tropical rainforest of the ocean," said Walker. "So much of ocean life depends on the health of a coral reef."
Each day in here could make a difference for the next generation knowing its ripple effect. For that, no day is ever taken for granted.
"A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity like this to be able to really help with a critical situation that's right in our backyard is exactly in our wheelhouse," said Kinsler. "We're very excited to be a part of it."
Corals represent 1% of the surface area of the ocean, yet they're responsible for up to 25% of the animals that live in it. Lisa Gregg from FWC offered some insight into corals that are already being out-planted and how they are selecting safe sites on the reef track.
"Coral Rescue offspring are already being out-planted on to the reefs from other facilities," said Gregg. "A batch of sexually produced Coral Rescue offspring produced by Keri O'Neil and her staff at the Florida Aquarium were out-planted to restoration sites in Miami-Dade County by Dr. Diego Lirman from the University of Miami recently."
In addition, a multi-year, large scale out-planting study that spans the reef tract is currently being conducted by the FWC and restoration practitioners to help gauge outplant survival to inform and scale up restoration activities, Gregg added.
"Restoration activities with both sexually produced rescue corals and asexually produced non-rescue corals are being conducted at sites across the reef tract that have been carefully chosen, and one of the factors taken into consideration for site selection is the lack of disease at and around potential sites," said Gregg. "Out-planted corals are surviving in high numbers, so this tells us we are on the right track."
It is not known if Coral Rescue offspring will be affected by the stony coral tissue loss disease when they are out-planted, but researchers are investigating. For more information, click here.