A Lifesaving Transplant for Coral Reefs

This mountainous star coral, Montastraeaa faveolata, from Panama has started to bleach. Photo by E.C. Peters.
This mountainous star coral, Montastraeaa faveolata, from Panama has started to bleach. Photo by E.C. Peters.

David Vaughan plunges his right arm down to his elbow into one of nine elevated tanks where thousands of tiny colonies of coral are growing at an astonishing rate in shaded seclusion next to the Mote Tropical Research Laboratory.

“Now this is the exciting part. You ready for this?” he asks, straining to be heard over the relentless hiss of filtered saltwater squirting from a maze of pipes and plastic tubing into the shallow fiberglass tank, the size of a dining-room table.

Dr. Vaughan, a marine biologist who is executive director of the laboratory, retrieves a flat rock from the bottom. A chocolate-brown colony of brain coral, nearly eight inches wide, has grown on the stony surface, its distinctive fleshy, serpentine folds nearly covering the rock.

A year ago the colony began as inch-and-a-half-wide coral fragments cut with a band saw from the same parent colony. As if doused with a growth elixir, these coral “seeds” began to grow 25 times as fast as they would in the wild.

And when arranged a few inches apart on the rock, the mini-colonies quickly advanced across the surface and fused to become a single grapefruit-sized organism that continues to grow.

Other species grown from tiny coral seeds in the Mote lab have developed even faster — up to 50 times their normal rate.

Dr. Vaughan and a staff biologist, Christopher Page, say this quick-grow technique, called microfragmenting, may make it possible to mass-produce reef-building corals for transplanting onto dead or dying reefs that took centuries to develop — perhaps slowing or even reversing the alarming loss of corals in the Florida Keys and elsewhere.

“This is real,” Dr. Vaughan said. “This potentially can be a fix.”

Other scientists are excited, too. While there are other efforts around the world to grow new coral, “this is easily the most promising restoration project that I am aware of,” said Billy Causey, a coral expert who oversees all federal marine sanctuaries in the Southeastern United States, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Dave and Chris are buying us time,” he added. “This will keep corals out there” until “we can come to understand what is happening to coral on the larger scale.”

Still, even Dr. Vaughan’s cheery optimism has its limits. A quarter of the earth’s corals have disappeared in recent decades, and the Mote scientists say no one can predict what will happen if the oceans continue to warm, pollution and acidification increase, overfishing further decimates species beneficial to coral, and land runoff continues to reduce the amount of life-giving sunlight that reaches the bottom.

“We do not know if this is a fix-all,” Mr. Page said. “At worst, we’re buying a little time. At best, we could restore the ecosystem.”

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