Replenishing the Reef

The softball-sized chunk of grooved brain coral that fits easily into the palm of marine biologist and coral expert Andrew Baker bears an uncanny resemblance to the complex organ that is the locus of the human mind.

Replenishing the Reef

University scientists are collaborating on an ambitious effort to save Florida’s precious coral colonies from extinction.
University scientists are collaborating on an ambitious effort to save Florida’s precious coral colonies from extinction.
by Robert C. Jones Jr.


As a healthy member of a species being ravaged by a mysterious disease, the brain coral specimen in Baker’s hand also occupies a special place in the minds of several marine scientists—as a harbinger of hope. Chiseled from a reef in the Marquesas Keys, the coral is among 340 specimens that are thriving in three 20-foot-long outdoor tanks at the University of Miami’s Experimental Hatchery on Virginia Key. All are part of an ambitious rescue mission to save the Florida Reef Tract, the only barrier reef in the continental United States, from a devastating malady known as stony coral tissue loss disease.

First observed in 2014 off Virginia Key, stony coral tissue loss disease has affected up to 23 different species of coral along the Florida Reef. It has spread past Key West toward the Marquesas and Dry Tortugas and crept as far north as Martin County, north of Jupiter. Late last year, the disease was documented in places as distant as Mexico, the Dominican Republic, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Jamaica. By some estimates, the disease has killed tens of millions of corals, making it one of the most lethal coral diseases on record anywhere in the world.

Baker and fellow scientists from the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and other agencies have collected hundreds of corals from outside the disease zone and brought them to the University’s hatchery, where they are tended to preserve their genetic diversity for future transplantation and potential breeding.

“Direct removal of corals from reefs is usually the last thing that any conservation management agency wants to do,” says Baker, an associate professor at the Rosenstiel School and leader of the University’s participation in the Florida Reef Tract Rescue Project. “Everything we do is usually about conserving, growing, leaving intact, and protecting the reef—a generally hands-off approach.

“But the situation has become so dire that, for the first time ever, management agencies are coordinating a rescue effort to collect up to 3,000 colonies of 15 different species and put them into land-based coral facilities. The ultimate goal is to restore the corals or their offspring back to the reefs.”

Coral disease

Uniting Against a Deadly Foe

The project is being spearheaded by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“Coral diseases tend to occur in the summer months, when warmer temperatures increase the growth rates of bacteria and other pathogens,” Baker explains. “You get a spike over a few months during which the disease is prevalent. Then, as temperatures cool, it usually burns itself out.”

But stony coral tissue loss disease has been continuously affecting Florida’s reefs for almost five years now. The resulting year-round ravages are devastating for corals already under assault from bleaching and ocean acidification intensified by climate change.

Of the 50 to 60 coral species found in Florida, says Baker, “almost half are being affected by this disease, including some really important ones.”

Scientists have yet to pinpoint what’s causing the disease. As NOAA notes on its website, bacteria transmitted among corals through direct contact and water circulation may be responsible.

The affliction does respond to antibiotics, says Baker, suggesting that it is bacterial in nature. But, he says, “We don’t yet have a causative agent, a pathological smoking gun.”

For now, the collaborative coral rescue mission seems to be the best hope for stopping the disease in its tracks.


Preserving Precious Specimens

With its running tropical seawater, the University’s Experimental Hatchery is an extraordinary asset in the effort. Baker and his team have implemented an added layer of protection for the precious specimens, filtering and sterilizing the seawater that is piped in. Thus far the team has not lost any of the hundreds of corals at the hatchery.

The specimens will eventually be transferred to a network of public zoos and aquariums around the nation, where they’ll become part of a series of public exhibits and educational outreach efforts while being conserved for future transplantation.

A collection of additional corals arrived at the hatchery in July, when a chartered vessel with scientists from the University, NOAA, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission brought disease-free specimens from the Dry Tortugas. Samples have also been separately delivered to project partner Nova Southeastern University.

Rosenstiel School doctoral student Carly Dennison, B.S.M.A.S. ’17, was among the divers on the research cruises, descending as deep as 60 feet to retrieve healthy corals of between 10 and 30 centimeters in diameter. “It’s important to choose the best and the brightest—the corals that will most likely survive and be reproductive,” she says. Arriving at the hatchery, specimens are dipped in a special solution to remove any foreign bacteria or parasites.

Coral reefs, which help protect coastlines from the damaging effects of storm surge, are, in Baker’s words, “warehouses of diversity”—in many ways, the rainforests of the sea.

“There are more species found in these ecosystems than in any other marine ecosystem on the planet,” Baker says. “Between a quarter and a third of all the world’s marine fish species depend on coral reefs at some part of their lifecycle. That makes protecting these precious ecosystems a matter not only of environmental stewardship but enlightened self-interest.” After all, he says, if we lose corals, “we also lose all of the species that use them as their habitat.

Tackling Coral Restoration

Rescuing coral reefs is a team effort. That’s why the University recently collaborated with the National Football League and others to help build a coral restoration site.

Scientists from Rescue a Reef, a program of the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, joined forces with the Miami Super Bowl Host Committee, NFL Green, FORCE BLUE, Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science, and Verizon Wireless to augment the coral colonies of Key Biscayne’s Rainbow Reef with some healthy new neighbors.

Rescue a Reef employs science-based techniques to grow threatened coral species in underwater nurseries, creating a sustainable source of healthy coral colonies for restoration.

In a classroom briefing held before the restoration dive, Dalton Hesley, M.P.S. ’15, senior research associate in the Rosenstiel School’s Department of Marine Biology and Ecology and lead diver for Rescue a Reef, demonstrated how corals are harvested and attached to existing reefs. “The staghorn thicket we build,” he explained, “will become a catalyst to seed the surrounding coral reefs.”

A component of the host committee’s environmental campaign Oceans to Everglades (O2E), the coral restoration project commemorates the NFL’s 100th season and its mission to leave a legacy of sustainability in Miami, which will host Super Bowl LIV on Feb. 2, 2020.

To date, Rescue a Reef has planted over 15,000 corals off Miami-Dade County, including the approximately 100 staghorn corals that now compose the Miami Super Bowl Host Committee Reef.

The University of Miami will host a symposium in January focused on examining extreme weather events and the impacts of climate change, along with how to prepare for and manage risks associated with those events.

The three-day symposium—Miami Climate Symposium 2020: Predicting and Living with Extremes—from Jan. 22-24 will feature scientists and researchers from the University of Miami and experts from other universities and government agencies. After two days of research and scientific discussion at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, the symposium will conclude with a keynote and panel discussion on the Coral Gables campus that will be open to the public.

The symposium will look at how hurricanes, storm surge, and coastal flooding are being impacted by sea-level rise, extreme heat waves, and other climate events. Participants will also explore how to respond to extreme events on the local level..