Laboratory Grown Corals Helping Reefs

Anneliese MollBY ANNELIESE MOLL
For the UAS Whalesong

Coral reefs everywhere are facing huge threats from several fronts: overfishing, pollution, and climate change. Over the last couple of years, scientists from all over the world have been searching for ways to help coral reefs recover.

Some of the first efforts for coral reef began in 2004 with small scale nursery projects off of the coast of Florida working on the restoration of elkhorn and staghorn corals. For the most part, all of the efforts that have been seen began with small coral fragments being removed from the reef and brought back to the laboratory to continue growing before they are fragmented. After being fragmented and allowed to grow further, they are then placed onto dead or otherwise heavily impacted reef.

In January, researchers from SECORE International (Sexual COral REproducation), published a paper showing how they had successfully raised lab bred coral colonies of a species of threatened Caribbean coral to sexual maturity. SECORE International is a global network of scientists along with pubic aquarium professionals and others who are invested in corals. The concept is to utilize a multidisciplinary strategy for conservation efforts aimed at coral reefs.

Their work began in 2011 when elkhorn coral gametes were collected and then reared in a laboratory. They were collected by special nets placed around spawning colonies. After the collection, the gametes were brought back to the laboratory and embryos were produced via in vitro fertilization. A year later, they were outplanted. Over the last four years those little coral fragments had grown to roughly the size of a soccer ball. Not only have they grown successfully, there was also evidence they had reproduced with their naturally grown counterparts. That marked the first ever successful rearing of this species of coral to reproductive age. This is relevant because elkhorn coral only reproduce once or twice a year typically sometime in August.

Another group that is heavily invested in coral restoration is Mote Tropical Research Laboratory in the Florida Keys, where other researchers have been working on similar projects regarding laboratory grown corals. While SECORE focused on elkhorn coral, Mote Laboratory works with multiple species and uses a technique called microfragmenting to begin mass producing reef building corals for depleted reefs around the Keys.

While these findings are extremely hopeful in regards to the restoration of endangered elkhorn coral populations, the corals still need the correct oceanic conditions to survive. This means that corals that have been outplanted will have the best success when placed in areas that have been well managed. Unfortunately, right now, all restoration work is restricted to small areas and is very costly and labor intensive.

The importance of coral reefs is wide reaching. They provide shelter for many different species of fish and invertebrates. In fact, they support more species per unit area than any other marine environment. Not only are coral reefs important to the environment, but also generate around $30 billion each year from fisheries, tourism, and coastal protection. They also are a source of food for many humans. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, there may be 1 to 8 million undiscovered organisms in reefs around the world. With the amount of life these reefs can support and how little we know about the ocean it is very possible that many species of organisms are completely dying out before we ever realize they are there.

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