Coral Rescue Team Races to Save Endangered Corals From Mystery Killer
Six years ago, during a global coral bleaching event and after the Port of Miami was dredged, endangered corals on Florida's coral reef began rapidly wasting away and dying. Their "mystery killer," whose exact pathogen still remains unidentified, is referred to as the "Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease" (SCTLD).
In response, scientists launched an unprecedented, "Hail Mary" rescue effort to save the corals from local extinction. The first phase of the groundbreaking project concludes next week.
SCTLD is different and more devastating than other coral diseases because of how quickly it can kill an entire coral colony, how many different species it infects, how long it has lingered and how much remains unknown about its origins, University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine Science professor Andrew Baker told EcoWatch.
"Corals affected by SCTLD lose tissue really fast," he said. "Unlike many other coral diseases that can take weeks or months to pass over a coral's surface, SCTLD can kill a colony within a few days under 'ideal circumstances.' Some species, principally the brain corals, have almost disappeared from local reefs within a period of about six months."
The coral biologist also noted that SCTLD was particularly difficult to eradicate because it affects almost half of Florida's coral species, which has allowed it to persist in reef communities for a long time because it has so many different hosts it can inhabit.
SCTLD now threatens the entire Florida Reef Tract (360 linear miles), which is the third-largest coral barrier reef in the world, decimating important reef-building and endangered corals in its path.
"It's really sad. Some of these corals that have been growing for tens to hundreds to possibly thousands of years are disappearing in months," said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) coral caretaker Allan Anderson. "We're talking about corals that have literally built this reef now dying, and it's pretty scary that something we can't yet identify is destroying everything."
For the past two years, Anderson and his FWC Coral Rescue Team colleagues have taken matters into their own hands — literally — by using hammers and chisels to remove healthy, at-risk corals from the reefs before the disease reaches them.
"At first I was kinda sad about collecting corals off the reef," said Tanya Ramseyer, FWC Coral Rescue project coordinator. "Your whole life, you're told not to touch the corals, and here, they tell us, 'Here's a hammer and chisel. You're gonna go down and take these off the reef.' But we're saving these corals in the nick of time. That's how I work myself up to it. We're rescuing these corals."
Scuba diving off charter and research vessels, the Coral Rescue Team identifies, collects, measures and samples corals susceptible to SCTLD that would likely perish if left on the reef.
FWC biologist Ananda Ellis uses a hammer and chisel to remove a healthy coral from the reefs off Key West as part of FWC's Coral Rescue Project. Tiffany Duong / Ocean Rebels
"The rescue mission is exactly what it sounds like," FWC Coral Program research assistant Ananda Ellis told EcoWatch. "We're trying to collect these corals and take them out of their natural environment before they get hit with this disease. Most of the individuals we're collecting would have been affected and dead within X amount of period, depending on the species, so we're definitely at that last stage. We do need to collect these corals."
To date, the team has completed six rescue cruises, and their last cruise is scheduled for May 27, Ellis shared. They have collected nearly 2,000 individual corals from 22 target species. Genetic sampling ensured they had enough unique genotypes of each species to preserve genetic diversity during the next phase of the rescue mission — coral propagation for future restoration activities, said Stephanie Schopmeyer, a main FWC coordinator for the rescue cruises.
FWC biologists Allan Anderson and Ananda Ellis take genetic samples and measurements of rescued corals at an intermediate holding facility. Tiffany Duong / Ocean Rebels
Rescue corals are shipped to partner universities, non-governmental organizations, zoos and aquaria around the country for study and safekeeping. The corals will remain in these new homes indefinitely. Many have never been observed in captivity before, and researchers have already successfully experimented with sexual and asexual propagation techniques to create new "coral babies."
"Over time, we should be able to breed or propagate or grow enough coral to repopulate the entire reef tract," Schopmeyer said. "That is the actual goal."
The final phase of the rescue project will occur when it is safe for the original rescue corals and their offspring created in holding facilities to be reintroduced to the wild in numbers that will hopefully help restore what the disease has ravaged.
Rescued corals acclimate to life outside of the ocean in an intermediate holding facility before being shipped to longer-term aquaria for safekeeping. Caroline Dennison / University of Miami
The Coral Rescue Team is part of a broader, extensive, multi-agency effort to track the spread of SCTLD, identify the pathogen, develop methods to lessen the effects of the disease on reefs and to rescue corals for safekeeping in zoos and aquaria around the country.
"It's a brave new reef out there," Baker said. "It's an exciting time to be a coral biologist because these interventions have never been tried before, and we're in a position where we have to start trying them."
"If you aren't trying," Ellis said, "then you've already determined the outcome. We don't know what the outcome is yet, because we're still trying. That in and of itself should keep people moving forward."The FWC Coral Monitoring Dashboard includes the number and species of corals rescued and the facilities currently housing them. It is updated bi-weekly and can be viewed here.
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By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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