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Four years after scientists raced around the Florida reef tract to rescue healthy coral amid an outbreak of lethal stony coral disease, a bunch still living on Key West time at SeaWorld in Orlando are thriving and making babies.

“We’ve been able to basically condition the corals to believe they’re in the wild,” said aquarium supervisor Justin Zimmerman, who oversees SeaWorld’s Florida Coral Rescue Center. “To have the same moonlight cues and the same sunrise.”

Cracking that code, a relatively new advancement in coral restoration, has allowed SeaWorld and 19 other zoos and aquariums around the country, from Colorado to New Jersey, to maintain a lifeline for ailing reefs.

“Twenty years ago when I started, I never thought we’d be at this point where we’re rescuing corals,” Zimmerman said. “It’s wonderful to be able to provide care. But at same time, it’s concerning the change that’s been happening.”

Since the outbreak was first detected off Virginia Key in 2014 amid dredging at Port Miami, the disease has decimated reef-building boulder coral and wiped out about 60% of the coral cover on Florida’s reef. That’s in addition to the widespread loss of branching staghorn and elkhorn coral in the 1970s.

It also led NOAA to declare the entire tract impaired and conclude a barrier that once provided a powerful defense to flooding from hurricane storm surge no longer works. By 2100, scientists estimate the damaged reef could lead to $1 billion in additional flood damage.

Around the Caribbean, the disease has crippled reefs, from across the Gulf Stream in the Bahamas to Mexico and South America. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, the disease circled islands in just two years. Puerto Rico has lost 50% of its coral cover since the disease was detected there in 2019.

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Coral housed at SeaWorld's Florida Coral Rescue Center.
Coral housed at SeaWorld’s Florida Coral Rescue Center. SeaWorld is one of 20 zoos and aquariums around the country caring for coral rescued from Florida’s reef amid an outbreak of stony coral disease. (Photo/Courtesy of SeaWorld).

In response to the widespread losses, coral scientists began mapping an emergency rescue about five years ago. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission helped recruit zoos and aquariums to keep healthy coral being pulled from the reef by the University of Miami and other scientists in a first of its kind rescue effort. Last summer’s extreme ocean heat wave replicated that same kind of all hands on deck response.

In 2020, just before the pandemic hit, SeaWorld received its first batch of about 500 rescued coral, and then another 300. Zimmerman said. Good timing allowed the theme park to purchase a nearby aquarium facility shutting down to house the coral. The coral have since thrived, with most more than doubling in size. That led SeaWorld to expand its lab and open a second facility, tend to by eight full-time aquarists. The coral are doing so well that it’s created another problem: finding enough space.

“As the corals grow, they have a lot of babies,” Zimmerman said. “It takes a lot, unfortunately, a lot more space. So we’re looking at expanding our footprint again.”

Keeping the corals on their native time is key to their health. With lights set to reflect sunlight and moonlight timed to Key West’s calendar means the coral continue to reproduce. The technology developed in England has allowed crucial reproduction that can amplify restoration work once the stony coral has died out, or scientists have discovered a cure.

“This method of light-assisted reproduction is good for everyone. It’s good for the environment. It’s good for scientists. It’s really good for the coral,” Zimmerman said. “That we kind of cracked this code, it just happened in the last 5 or 10 years. And it allows all the work for this whole project to happen.”

Because stony coral is still infecting reefs, none of the rescued coral or lab-bred coral have been returned to the reef. But Zimmerman says he’s hopeful.

“This pipeline, this continuous cycle of corals can go back onto the reefs to restore Florida back to the way it was 30, 40 years ago,” he said. “It’s kind of a labor or love.”

Jenny Staletovich

Jenny Staletovich is WLRN's Environmental Reporter. Her work appears under a partnership between WLRN and the Key Biscayne Independent.

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Jenny Staletovich is WLRN's Environmental Reporter. Her work appears under a partnership between WLRN and the Key Biscayne Independent.