MOTE MARINE LABORATORY & AQUARIUM: Catalyzing a coral reef recovery - Global Impact

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MOTE MARINE LABORATORY & AQUARIUM: Catalyzing a coral reef recovery

ews stories about Florida’s coral reefs often sound like the reefs look—troubled by serious loss, but dotted with occasional bright spots. Mote Marine Laboratory scientists and partners are amplifying those bright spots through a major initiative to help restore both corals and hope.
Stony coral tissue loss disease is affecting nearly half the coral species on the Florida Reef Tract, with mortality rates frequently exceeding 80% and impacts spanning Martin County to Sand Key in the Lower Florida Keys—and possibly beyond. It’s affecting brain, maze, boulder and other coral groups that form the foundations of the Florida Reef Tract, an economic engine worth $8.5 billion and supporting 70,400 jobs.
“It is highly unlikely that our devastated coral populations can recover on their own; that means conservation strategies alone cannot solve this dilemma.” said Mote President & CEO Dr. Michael P. Crosby. “Mote is undertaking a bold, science-based, Coral Disease Response and Restoration Initiative to actively assist the ecosystem’s recovery.“
Simultaneously, Mote scientists are serving as leaders within a state-federal-nongovernment Disease Advisory Council of more than three dozen partners, working closely with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and partners.
Dr. Erinn Muller, Science Director of Mote’s Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research & Restoration (IC2R3), is leading Mote’s new initiative and its research within the Disease Advisory Council. “Now is a critical time. Either we’re going to lose our coral reefs in the next decade, or we are going to make sure they survive and continue the functions that are so critical for our livelihoods and our wellbeing.”
In pursuit of the pathogen(s)
Scientists suspect that stony coral tissue loss disease is bacterial and waterborne. This year, collaborative research funded by the Environmental Protection Agency and conducted by Mote, NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory, and FWC, has expanded this understanding.
“New research from our lab suggests that there is a unique bacterial signature of these corals after they are sick,” Muller said. Even exposed corals that survived have bacterial differences from non-exposed corals.
Project partners found that bacterial groups differed significantly among corals at the healthy, diseased and previously diseased sites, and bacteria in the scientific orders Rhodobacterales and Rhizobiales may play important roles in the disease. Water in diseased sites also had greater numbers of Rhodobacterales.
“Whether these represent primary pathogens or a secondary response to something else that is the primary pathogen, we don’t know yet,” Muller said.
Above: Dr. Erinn Muller, Science Director of Mote’s Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research & Restoration surveys the reef.
a coral reef recovery
Resilience and restoration
Over the years, Mote scientists have raised and restored more
than 55,000 corals to Florida Keys reefs. As a world-leader of
science-based coral restoration, Mote emphasizes raising genetically
diverse corals and promoting their best traits through
controlled sexual reproduction.
In lab studies, certain Mote-raised coral genotypes (genetic
varieties) resist tissue loss disease carried in water, only becoming
sick after touching infected corals. At least one Mote-tested
genotype of mountainous star coral appears to resist the
disease altogether.
Now, Mote is investigating whether lab-tested corals will continue
thriving once planted on the reef—one of many efforts overseen by
a Restoration Trials Team co-led by Mote and DEP, with members
from NOAA, FWC, U.S. Geological Survey, Nova Southeastern
University, Florida Aquarium, The National Park Service, The
Nature Conservancy and Coral Restoration Consortium. So far,
Mote has documented that less than 10% of the corals outplanted
in the recent group show disease signs, even after six months of
potential exposure within the diseased reefs.
Super-charging the response
In early 2019, Mote launched its innovative Florida Keys Coral
Disease Response & Restoration Initiative in response to multiple
threats against Florida’s reefs.
Over three years, Mote will work with NOAA, Biscayne National
Park, DEP, The Nature Conservancy and others, to:
• Propagate and/or plant approximately 70,000 coral fragments,
emphasizing disease- and stress-resistant genotypes;
• Advance research to identify naturally resilient, endemic
coral genotypes;
• Establish a remote, inland, hurricane-resistant coral gene
bank this year at Mote Aquaculture Research Park in eastern
Sarasota County, Florida, to preserve threatened coral species
and their genetic diversity.
• Establish an isolated, “clean room” lab necessary for coral
disease research; and
• Implement multi-year monitoring and analyses to scientifically
evaluate restoration results.
These monumental efforts are possible thanks to philanthropic
giving, Mote’s grant of nearly $1.5 million from the National
Coastal Resilience Fund (a partnership of the National Fish and
Wildlife Foundation*, NOAA, Shell Oil Company and TransRe) and
government support.
“Senator Marco Rubio was instrumental in shepherding a
Congressional $5 million addition to NOAA’s budget to help support
our initiative to respond to this environmental disaster,” Crosby said.
“Floridians are grateful for the expertise and passion Mote
researchers bring to their work, and I know Mote will make a
meaningful difference with the unprecedented federal resources
for the restoration of our reefs that I secured as a member of
the Senate Appropriations Committee. South Florida’s economy
depends on it,” Rubio said.
This year, the State of Florida appropriated nearly $600,000 for
Mote’s initiative.
“Mote’s valuable work has never been more important in ensuring
that we use sound science-based solutions to ensure that we can
restore and protect our reefs,” said State Representative Holly
Raschein, District 120.
Envisioning a state-to-national coral gene bank
“We envision that the gene bank we are creating this year at Mote
Aquaculture Research Park will be the seed for our longer-term
development of a Category-4 or -5 hurricane-resistant, expanded
coral gene bank at that location, ideally with every coral genotype
we have in culture represented in triplicate,” Crosby said. “Mote
has the knowledge, passion and vision to develop a gene bank
that can host representative genotypes of every coral species
found in Florida, and grow that to become a national gene bank
for every coral species in the United States.”
State of the reef
This summer, Mote scientists joined global exploration initiative
OceanX to assess the health of the entire Florida Reef Tract in real
time. Turn the page for a map with Mote’s results.
*The views and conclusions in this document are those of the
authors and do not represent the opinions, views, policies or
endorsement of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
Above: Boulder brain coral suffering from stony coral tissue loss
disease in the Florida Keys.
Coral disease ‘heat map’
Mote’s coral scientists joined the global ocean-exploration
initiative OceanX for a June 4-24 expedition to assess the
health of the entire Florida Reef Tract in real time—with a
special focus on the unprecedented outbreak of stony coral
tissue loss disease.
“This expedition covered a wider area in a shorter time than any
previous survey of the Florida Reef Tract in context of stony coral
tissue loss disease,” said Mote’s IC2R3 Science Director Dr. Erinn
Muller, who was tapped by OceanX for the expedition along with
Mote’s visiting Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr. Hanna Koch
and Postdoctoral Researcher Dr. Abigail Clark, and partners at
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Scripps Institution
of Oceanography.
Mote scientists documented the prevalence of stony coral tissue
loss disease at 85 sites from the Dry Tortugas to Key Biscayne.
Most sites had at least some disease impacts, and Mote’s data
provided a higher-resolution picture of its prevalence and southern
front around Sand Key. High-prevalence disease “hotspots”
clustered offshore of Sugarloaf Key. One site within this area
showed approximately 36% disease prevalence of the entire coral
community. At that site, 70% of boulder brain coral (Colpophyllia
natans) colonies were affected with stony coral tissue loss
disease—including several that were hundreds of years old.
“One sign of hope was that, even in hard-hit sites, some corals
still appeared healthy,” Muller said. “If the surviving corals
persist, they could be the foundation for recovery, together with
reef restoration.” 

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