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Scientists race against time to save Florida coral reef from mysterious disease

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The Florida Reef Tract extends 360 miles (580 kilometers) from Dry Tortugas.

Orlando, United States of America:

In a lab in central Florida, biologist Aaron Gavin uses tiny pipettes to carefully feed shrimp to more than 700 corals living in large saltwater tanks, shining lamps that mimic sunlight over them.

The scientists’ work here may be their last chance to save the species that make up the only coral reef in the continental waters of the United States.

Gavin and his team have recreated the coral reef habitat found in the waters of the state’s southern tip with artificial streams and local fish.

They hope to prevent the 18 species of coral in their care from suffering the same mysterious disease called SCTLD (Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease) that is afflicting their wild cousins.

Amidst sprawling mangroves and darting schools of fish off the Florida Keys, damaged corals – usually darker in color – are now visible as large white patches on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

The situation is similar along the Florida Reef Tract, which stretches for 360 miles (580 kilometers) from the Dry Tortugas, the westernmost island in the Florida Keys, to the city of St. Lucie, located approximately 120 miles north. of Miami.

“It’s heartbreaking, and I think the most dangerous[thing]about it is that most people don’t know it’s happening,” said Michelle Ashton, communications director for Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Rescue

What Gavin and his colleagues at the Florida Coral Rescue Center discovered could change the future of the state’s marine ecosystems.

“We keep corals safe and healthy in our care,” explained Justin Zimmerman, director of the Orlando-based lab, which opened in 2020 and is managed by aquatic theme park company SeaWorld.

“If they were still in the wild, up to 90 percent of them would have died,” Zimmerman said.

The potentially devastating SCTLD was first discovered near Miami in 2014, and is spreading rapidly, killing nearly half of the reef coral species, a cornerstone of marine biodiversity.

The disease, the causes of which are unknown, is now plaguing animals in the Caribbean, all the way to Mexico and Belize.

The rescue lab’s work is part of a project created in 2018 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and involves dozens of public and private organizations.

The group, facing more than 20 of the 45 species of hard corals in the region threatened with extinction, devised an unprecedented plan in hopes of extracting healthy corals from the area’s waters and caring for them in these artificially equipped aquariums. Of. They will be returned to their wild habitats in the future.

“You’re looking at the future of the Florida Reef Tract in this room,” Aston said of the corals at the Orlando Aquarium. “And their grandchildren will be the ones who go back to the water.”

return to sea

The first part of the rescue plan has allowed wildlife officials to save nearly 2,000 colonies of corals, which are now stored in more than 20 institutions in 14 different states.

The second part of the plan requires researchers to successfully return the corals to the ocean – although such an operation is likely to take a long time from now, as corals reproduce very slowly.

Scientists are studying the genetics of rescued animals in an effort to cultivate new specimens that may be more resistant to disease, as well as other threats such as warming water temperatures and pollution.

The success or failure of these efforts can have major consequences for the sector.

Stony corals, composed of limestone skeletons, form coral reefs, which in turn provide a home for a quarter of marine life.

In addition, the formations are natural barriers between the open ocean and land, reducing the strength of waves hitting the coast, especially during hurricanes and other storms.

And a hit to coral health could mean a hit to Florida tourism revenue, as one study estimated that visitors to the state for fishing and diving along the reef generate $8.5 billion. .

Key Largo resident Steve Campbell, 59, is worried about what will happen next. He is sitting next to the small tourist boat he captains, which is currently anchored in the harbour.

He said that the coral disease has already affected his business.

“I’ve been in the Florida Keys for 20 years, and I’m out on the water every day,” he said.

“Obviously we make our living here, so we take people to the reef just for the pleasure of seeing the reef.”

“So that’s extremely important to us.”

(This story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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