Rescued Corals from Threatened Florida Reef Arrive at the Texas State Aquarium

July 24, 2019

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX – This month, several dozen corals, rescued from a massive die-off incident in Florida, arrived by private shipment to the Texas State Aquarium, where they’ll be guarded from a deadly disease ravaging the “rainforests of the sea” in America’s own backyard.

For years, the Florida Reef Tract, the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States, and the third largest barrier reef in the world, has been quickly consumed by a stony-coral tissue loss disease. In four years, the disease has swept across nearly 100 miles of marine habitat, destroying whole sections of reef and leaving areas that once teemed with life looking like the barren surface of the moon, to hear scuba divers and scientists describe it.

In July 2018, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS) and the NOAA CRCP met to discuss how to best slow the spread of the disease and save any remaining coral they could. Working off a suggestion from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), a plan was launched to remove healthy corals that the disease had not yet reached and keep them in land-based aquaria. This monumental undertaking would hopefully keep these corals, many which were on the Endangered Species List, from becoming infected.

But these coral refugees aren’t just survivors of the reef, they could be key to helping it recover. Among the new arrivals are primary reef-building species, which could play a role in preserving the genetic diversity of the reef and to help with future restoration activities. Nearly 5,000 coral representing 22 species were chosen to be collected and cared for in preparation for rebuilding the reef.

Members of the Associations of Zoos and Aquariums, including the Texas State Aquarium, were the only group believed to have the resources and expertise to play the role of coral caretakers in this unprecedented rescue effort. In August 2018, the Florida Coral Rescue Team requested AZA’s assistance and formed a new public-private partnership, the AZA-Florida Reef Tract Rescue Project (AZA-FRTRP) to aid in the conservation of Florida’s coral. And so, with little time to spare, corals were retrieved from the reef, packed up, and shipped off to the Texas State Aquarium and other accredited zoos and aquariums.

Upon arrival, each coral was carefully unpacked by hand by aquarists, acclimated to a new aquatic exhibit, and placed in a large tank in a behind-the-scenes area. Here in this safe and sterile environment, staff will keep a close eye on the coral, keeping them healthy and even allowing them opportunity to grow and propagate until the day they can finally return the ocean. Aquarium staff say that could take several years, depending on the condition of Florida’s coral reefs.

Aquarium staff plan to eventually exhibit the newly arrived coral for the public to see, and to share how support from Aquarium guests helps with Florida Reef Tract Rescue Project and other conservation work. Guests can learn more about how their visit helps “save more than memories” at www.texasstateaquarium.org/save-more-than-memories.

Pictures of rescued corals upon arrival to the Texas State Aquarium

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