As mysterious disease kills Florida’s coral reefs, a massive effort tries to save them

Coral is an animal whose head looks like a tiny, slimy feather duster. After finding a nice neighborhood to settle down in, its soft body, known as a polyp, slowly grows a hard calcium inner-skeleton.

The polyp can clone itself, sometimes hundreds to thousands of times, to create a giant interconnected colony of polyps covering a skeleton of rock-hard armor. Polyps also host colorful plant-like microbes that set up a nutrient exchange market within the animal.

Corals congregate to form reefs, which cover less than one percent of the ocean’s floor yet harbor one-quarter of all marine life — a bustle of colorful fish, sharks, sea turtles and others amidst calcium architecture.

But underwater Rome wasn’t built in a day. “It’s taken thousands of years for these reefs to build up,” said Andrew Stamper, conservation science manager for Disney’s Animals, Science, and Environment. “It’s taken less than a decade for them to really come tumbling down.”

There are many coral diseases out there but they usually affect a small part of the coral from which the animal can recover. Stony coral disease however infects the entire head, said Stamper, annihilating the creature.

After a reef gets blighted, it can extinguish the entire food chain and leave only marble-like ruins of coral skeletons behind, a marine metropolis turned ghost town.

“But it’s not all a death and destruction story,” said Stamper. “The amount of people involved with this and all that they’ve given has been breathtaking.”

A devastating ailment

Since 2014, a mysterious illness known as stony coral tissue loss disease has plagued Florida’s reef tract, killing off nearly half the state’s hard corals, whose rigid limestone skeletons provide the architectural backbone of the largest bank reef in the continental United States. By 2018, it became clear that without drastic intervention, these corals would face imminent localized extinction.

“We couldn’t sit back and watch these corals disappear,” said Stephanie Schopmeyer, a coral ecologist from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

To save them, scientists devised a plan to remove the most vulnerable species from their natural habitat and create a land-based gene bank that would serve as a modern day ark for the animals. They knew that to succeed, time was of the essence and collaboration was key. What followed was an unprecedented effort, in which dozens of federal and state organizations, universities, zoos and aquariums joined forces to rescue thousands of Florida’s endangered corals.

An underwater pandemic

Recently, the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center released data suggesting a virus is probably triggering the disease, according to Maurizio Martinelli, Florida Sea Grant’s coral disease response coordinator. A bacterial infection may also be involved. But without knowing for sure, little can be done to stop it.

Since it was first detected near a Port of Miami dredging project, the disease has continued to spread north and south along Florida’s 360-mile-long reef tract, which is valued at $8.5 million for the jobs it creates and the income it brings in from tourism. Corals in more than 17 countries and territories throughout the Caribbean are now being impacted.

“To have something like this last this long and affect this number of species has really never been seen before,” said Jennifer Moore, Threatened Coral Recovery Coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The rescue effort

In 2018, state and federal scientists realized the marine disease was spreading faster than it could be controlled. With almost half of Florida’s 45 coral species vulnerable, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), a non-profit representing zoos and aquariums throughout the country, rallied a network of over 20 sites across the country to harbor coral evacuees in whatever facilities they could muster.

Much of the research work is overseen by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which was first established in 1990 to address the declining reef system.

Beth Firchau is the project coordinator for the AZA Florida Reef Tract Rescue Project. Historically, she said, only two or three percent of corals in the reef tract had a disease at any given time. Now, with the presence of stony coral disease, it’s estimated that over 60 percent of corals are diseased.

“We’ve got [evacuated] corals in the mile high city of Denver, we’ve got them in the inner city of Camden, New Jersey, we’ve got them in Texas, we’ve got them in Iowa,” she said. “We’ve got them all over the country, safekeeping those corals for a point when the state of Florida decides that it’s time to propagate them and send their offspring back out.”

While SeaWorld, an AZA constituent, was searching for a property to house its share of the stony diaspora, a coral sales company was serendipitously selling a large coral storage facility and state-of-the-art equipment in Orlando. That facility turned into the Florida Coral Rescue Center (FCRC).

“It was perfect,” said Jim Kinsler, aquarium manager at SeaWorld and facility manager of the FCRC. “All we had to do was purchase the equipment, take over the lease, and move forward.” Today, over one-third of all the 2,000 rescued corals are sheltered there.

“This is the most unique partnership we’ve ever been involved with,” said Kinsler, referring to the fact that large companies like Disney and SeaWorld were partnering with federal agencies, state agencies, universities, museums, aquariums, and plenty of other affiliates to try and save Florida’s devastated reefs.

“We’ve done step one, which was to get all of these corals into a safe, controlled environment,” said Kinsler. “And now we’re ready to move into the next steps.”