A collaboration between the Mote Marine Laboratory and The Natural Conservancy has begun, taking the first steps in a 15-year project with the goal of restoring one million corals in the Caribbean and the Florida Keys.

Corals may look like colourful, elaborate rocks but they are in fact invertebrate animals related to jellyfish. Many species form the building blocks for marine ecosystems, supporting biodiversity and protecting coastlines from potentially damaging wave action from storms.

Coral reefs also provide a source of income and food for fishers, attract tourists and have an estimated economic impact of $375 billion per year. But despite their benefits, it is predicted that Caribbean coral reefs could die out within just two decades.

The major cause of coral death is from coral bleaching. Most corals obtain much of their energy and nutrients from algae-like photosynthetic zooxanthella that live within their tissues. Coral bleaching occurs when the corals experience stressful conditions and lose or expel these important nutrient-providing organisms, leaving the corals devoid of sustenance and colour. Although in the early stages of coral bleaching it is possible for corals to regain the zooxanthella, if the stressful conditions persist, the coral colony dies.

Coral bleaching is largely caused by anthropogenic factors like increased sea temperature and acidification from climate change, or the human practices of cyanide fishing, herbicide run off from farms and non-biodegradable sunscreen use by swimmers.

corals

Before and after Acropora Coral bleaching. Images: Gratwicke, 2011 and Wikipedia, 2011. ©Brian Gatwick, © Acropora

Collaboration for corals

The collaborative project from the Mote Marine Laboratory and The Natural Conservancy begins with one year of planning and preparation, including growing around 50,000 coral fragments of various species. These corals will be selected based on their resilience to increasing water temperatures, ocean acidification and disease.

Within just four years, the goal is to establish a coral gene bank and accumulate genetically identified samples of coral tissues as an ‘insurance’ against near-term reef damage from climate change, widespread bleaching, diseases and oil spills. With these samples in the bank, the future of the coral reefs’ restoration is more secure.

By 2025, the partnership hopes to have planted 1,000,000 coral fragments in the target areas, and to have educated and engaged local communities in the restoration programmes, helping to safeguard the future of the restored reefs by involving the people that surround them.

“As global challenges to the long-term sustainability of coral reefs intensify, so must our efforts to understand and address them,” said Dr. Michael P. Crosby, President & CEO of Mote. “Proactively restoring reefs at a regionally strategic scale, combined with establishing a network of coral gene banks to safeguard essential biodiversity, is unprecedented and allows for all three benefits: helping replenish some of the ocean’s most biodiverse ecosystems, educating and involving communities that are intimately linked to them, and preserving livelihoods — the billions of dollars generated by reef-related economic activity.”

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