APOLLO BEACH — Only 63 unique pillar coral colonies are currently alive in the Florida Reef Tract, so a group of scientists, including those at the Tampa-based Florida Aquarium have banded together to save the species, which is under threat of local extinction.
In addition to ocean acidification attributable to global warming, pillar coral colonies, which grow in stubby, cigar-like fingers, are susceptible to a spreading disease that causes tissue loss in coral — leaving nothing but the calcium carbonate bone — that was first discovered off of Miami in 2014.
The Florida Reef Tract extends from Biscayne Bay to the Dry Tortugas. The reef, nearly 150 miles long and four miles wide, is the third-largest barrier reef ecosystem in the world. Most of that is within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
Last month, scientists confirmed that disease, which has already spread north, had moved south and west — jumping west past the gap of the Seven Mile Bridge to the reefs off of Looe Key.
The disease first shows itself in a species known as Meandrina coral, commonly known as maze coral.
Pillar coral, or Dendrogyra cylindrus, is equally susceptible to the disease and also significantly rarer, noted Keri O’Neil, the coral nursery manager at Florida Aquarium’s Center for Conservation in Apollo Beach.
In the Florida Reef Tract, maze coral outnumbers pillar coral 50 to 1, she added — that was before the impact of the disease.
The genetic rescue project was created in November, 2015, by Karen Neely, a former coral biologist with Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in Marathon and currently an adjunct professor at Florida Keys Community College and Cindy Lewis deputy director and lead scientific researcher at the Keys Marine Laboratory on Long Key.
It involves wide variety of partners, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Coral Restoration Foundation, and Mote Marine Laboratory.
“The story that there’s a disease killing of Florida corals is important,” O’Neil said. ”There’s an equally important story of an unprecedented level of cooperation that is occurring between government agencies, nonprofits and universities.”
Florida Aquarium’s part in this effort is multi-faceted. Its Center for Conservation is home to a gene bank of coral species that it hopes to preserve and someday introduce back into the wild.
“If we are ever to have a good chance of restocking the pillar coral population in the future, we need to have these individuals in a protected location,” said O’Neil, who is also one of several scientists working on a way to stop the progress of the disease.
Gene banks for the future
The Florida Aquarium is one of five organizations that hold pillar coral in land-based nurseries and holds some of the large remaining genetically distinct pillar corals that are extinct in the wild.
Florida Aquarium’s efforts at species propagation differs from those under way at Mote Marine Laboratory’s Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research and Restoration in Summerland Key.
At Mote, they grow new coral at an accelerated rate using a technique called microfragmenting — which capitalizes on the natural healing process and allows corals to grow 25 times faster than normal.
Since those fragments are all genetically related, they will also grow together, to create an even larger coral shelf.
In Apollo Beach, O’Neil and other scientists will use techniques she learned at the Horniman Museum and Gardens, located in Forest Hill England, southeast of London.
The techniques developed at the Horniman allow the scientists to induce coral spawning outside of the natural cycle — which may only be once a year.
“By keeping these corals together in the lab and being able to have them spawn in the laboratory setting is quite possibly the only successful way we we can produce new coral,” O’Neil said.
Depending on the conditions in the aquarium and lab water, coral can grow somewhat faster than in the wild, but not at an accelerated rate.
For example, O’Neil said, one species has grown five centimeters in less than a year.
“Given the right conditions, you could be looking at outplanting these things in a few years,” she said. “You’re not going to have pillar coral the size of a small car for 1,000 years — that’s just the sad fact of this.”
Meanwhile Mote Marine has been microfragmenting pillar coral but that research was sidetracked by Hurricane Irma last September.
“The coral fragments very well,” said Christopher Page, a staff Biologist at Mote’s Summerland Key facility, which is also known as the IC2R3. “The fragments handle the fragmentation process and the aftermath very well,”
Mote’s research into the process is in its infancy, he noted. Scientists are still attempting to identify the conditions that will foster the fastest growth.
“We’re not yet in production mode, we’re in experimental mode and it’s going along pretty well,” Page added.
While Mote’s process can, in theory, allow for larger pillar coral colonies in a shorter time span, the colonies are all essentially clones of one genome — so the induced spawning fostered by the work at Florida Aquarium’s Center for Conservation increases genetic diversity.
Searching for a cure
The Florida Aquarium and O’Neil are also working with NOAA and a Clearwater-based pharmaceutical wholesaleler, CoreRx, to develop an antibiotics-laced paste that may be a way to stop the spread of the disease.
“At least in pillar coral and now in some other species as well, we know that this disease can be treated with antibiotics in the laboratory setting,” O’Neil said. “The concern is you can’t just dose the entire Florida reef with antibiotics.
“What we are looking at, specifically with pillar coral, is the potential to find a very targeted delivery system that would allow us to treat coral without harming the ecosystem.”
So far, all antibiotics-based tests of disease treatment have been conducted in laboratory settings.
One method hoped to stop the disease was permitted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and introduced in the waters off southeast Florida last month.
The process involves grinding away a firebreak in healthy coral and filling it with a mix of marine epoxy and chlorine.
A team led by Dr. Brian Walker, a research scientist in the Department of Marine and Environmental Sciences in the Halmos College of Natural Sciences and Oceanography at Nova Southeastern University, was the first to use the technique.
The technique was successfully used in 2015 by Dr. Greta Aeby, of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology at the University of Hawaii, to combat Black Band Disease — which also destroys coral tissue — in the Hawaiian Archipelago.
Walker is working in the waters off of Biscayne Bay, north through Broward County, attempting to save 200 or so corals that are a couple hundred years old and greater than 200 meters in length.
“We’re trying to focus on these big guys because they’re the oldest and most resistant to the things that have been thrown at them the last 100 years or so,” said Walker, who added that the reef has lost about 50 percent of the coral it had only a few years ago.
Walker noted that while his team was the first one to put the technique into action, Neely has been conducting lab work on disease transition and exploring different techniques to stop its progression.
Scientists first chiseled into the coral but later switched to an underwater angle grinder to cut a one-centimeter wide trench into live tissue, within five centimeters of the disease edge. They then fill the trench with the chlorine-epoxy mix. They also spread the epoxy around the margin surrounding the diseased coral.
They have gone back to check on the progress and, in all but two cases, the disease hasn’t crossed the beginning of the epoxy line around the disease margin. None of the disease had progressed to the firebreak cut.
“I’m fairly confident that firebreaks should stop the progression of the disease connected to that tissue,” Walker said.
He’s hopeful the epoxy spread around the disease margin itself could stop the disease without cutting the firebreaks — which would reduce the impact on the coral.
Meanwhile, scientists continue to work together — they communicate weekly via conference calls — as well as with cross-industry partners such as epoxy and cement makers and pharmaceutical companies, in hopes of identifying the cause and treatment of the disease, which has exhibited viral properties, as well as bacteriological.
“The disease is spreading so rapidly, it’s hard for us, as scientists, to keep up,” said O’Neil, who acknowledged that the scientific method itself is a slow process.
“This is why having so many different partners and so many agencies is necessary to have any hope of stopping this thing,” he said. “It requires collaboration and coordination among many different people and industries.”