The 2,000 square foot, state-of-the-art Florida Coral Rescue Center (FCRC) is a member facility of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Florida Reef Tract Rescue Project (AZA-FRTRP), and the largest Florida Coral Rescue program holding facility in the country. It is now also the proud home to hundreds of new rough cactus coral offspring. The reproduction, known as larval release, has been happening over the last several weeks. It is believed to be the first documented occurrence of this threatened species propagating in human care. SeaWorld manages the FCRC where its team of aquarists provide care for rescued Florida corals. FCRC has 18 species of coral from the Florida Reef Tract (also known as Florida’s Coral Reef), including species listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. These corals are expected to be part of a large-scale breeding (propagation) effort and produce offspring that will be used to restore Florida’s Coral Reef. Today, the FCRC has more than 700 corals in its care. FCRC’s work with Florida corals is permitted by the State of Florida and is crucial to the SCTLD response plan.
Rough cactus corals are brooders, which means the embryos fertilize within the coral colony and are released as swimming larvae. Within a few days after release from the parent colony, the larvae settle down onto hard surfaces like the small tiles FCRC aquarists have placed near them in their nursery pools, where they will attach and begin growing into corals. Typically, this species broods in the ocean from December-March.
“These offspring are very important to the future of this threatened species and to the health of our oceans,” said Jim Kinsler, facility manager of the Florida Coral Rescue Center and Curator of Aquariums and Wild Artic at SeaWorld. “Our team of experts understand that the work we are doing is critical to protecting an entire ecosystem and by ensuring these corals survive and grow to become a part of a healthy and abundant population, future generations of ocean enthusiasts will be able to enjoy them when visiting Florida’s Coral Reef.”
Many of Florida’s coral species had never been managed in human care before now. All 18 species at FCRC are affected by SCTLD in the wild. The colonies at the FCRC were collected by FWC in 2019 through 2020 ahead of the disease boundary.
Despite being the largest holding facility within the AZA- FRTRP, the FCRC is now at maximum capacity and more space is needed because the corals are healthy and growing, and it is time to start breeding them.
Millions of Corals Affected as SCTLD Sweeps through Reefs with up to 100 Percent Mortality Rates for Susceptible Species
SCTLD has wiped out entire sections of reefs as it has spread along Florida and to reefs in the Caribbean, including Jamaica, Mexico, St. Maarten, the Dominican Republic and the US Virgin Islands. It first appeared off the coast of Florida in 2014. Florida’s Coral Reef, which extends 360 miles from Florida’s Martin County to the Dry Tortugas, has been particularly hard hit with millions of corals affected. SCTLD has up to a 100 percent mortality rate for susceptible species at some reefs.
The presence of environmental stressors, such as rising ocean temperatures, exposure to pollution and physical damage are likely to have made certain species more susceptible to the disease which causes coral mortality through tissue loss. No cure for the disease has yet been identified.
“While work continues to better understand and control this disease, we have made the difficult decision to remove healthy coral from ahead of the disease boundary and place them in land-based facilities like FCRC to prevent them from becoming infected, to preserve genetic diversity, and to propagate them for restoration,” said Gil McRae, Director of the FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. “Large numbers of offspring produced by rescued corals will be essential for restoration of Florida’s Coral Reef. These vulnerable rescued corals are thriving under the expert care of the FCRC team and offspring produced by these corals will contribute substantially to restoration efforts.”
Coral reefs are some of the most diverse and valuable ecosystems on earth. Globally, they support more species per unit area than any other marine environment, including about 4,000 species of fish, 800 species of hard corals and hundreds of other species. Scientists estimate that there may be millions of undiscovered species of organisms living in and around reefs. Coral reef structures also buffer shorelines against 97 percent of the energy from waves, storms and floods, helping to prevent loss of life, property damage and erosion.
FCRC Provides World Class Care and Propagation Needed to Restore Healthy Reef Systems
The Orlando-based FCRC is a state-of-the-art facility established for gene banking and care of Florida corals rescued from reefs in response to the SCTLD that is sweeping across Florida’s Coral Reef. It is part of a national network of coral holding or gene banking facilities coordinated by the AZA. It provides a safe, stable environment for coral colonies to receive world class care from a team of coral experts and will play a significant role in the future restoration of Florida’s Coral Reef.
Under the guidance of the AZA, the FCRC partnership consists of resource management agencies FWC and NOAA Fisheries; accredited zoological facility SeaWorld; and funding from the Disney Conservation Fund and Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida, among others. These partners provide the funding, resources and expertise to help ensure there is a future for Florida’s corals.