The scientists who met in Key Largo, Florida in August have started to collect Staghorn coral spawn to be used for their ongoing research on replenishing the region’s dying reefs.
Among the goals was to learn if cryogenically frozen Staghorn coral semen, when thawed, can still fertilize an egg to allow the aquariums to use banked coral sperm to repopulate the Caribbean.
In mid-December, it was thawed and swam.
“This is super exciting,” said Linda Penfold, director of the South-East Zoo Alliance for Reproduction & Conservation in Jacksonville that hosted and participated in the experiment. “This is breaking new ground.”
The Smithsonian Institution already proved this could be accomplished with other types of coral, but had not done so with Staghorn, the most important reef building coral in the Caribbean.
“All animals are different,” Penfold said. “We had no way of knowing if Staghorn would perform in the same way.”
The Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network reports that more than half of the Caribbean’s coral reefs, which are home to more than 4,000 species of fish and countless species of plants, have died since 1970.” The Caribbean region includes Florida.
However, it has been observed that in Cuba the reefs remain healthy, likely due to less pollution and development, Penfold said.
“The goal is to bank viable coral from all of the Caribbean, including Cuba,” said Margo McKnight, vice president of biological operations at the Florida Aquarium. “The more we can grab for the future, the better.”
But this is a long-range plan, McKnight said.
In March, Tampa scientists will travel to Cuba to build an underwater coral farm in Guanahacabibes National Park, a nature preserve located on the westernmost point of the island.
The Florida Aquarium uses such a nursery in Key Largo that was erected and is maintained by the not-for-profit Coral Restoration Foundation.
It is an acre-sized underwater farm where coral is hung on “trees” – PVC pipes planted in the ground in rows. Picture a cornfield but underwater and with coral.
These nurseries are easier to navigate during underwater experiments than natural reefs.
The Florida Aquarium will install 20 coral trees in Cuba.
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