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Coral Genetic Bank Offers Hope for Restoring Florida's Reefs - 2004-09-22

According to some environmentalist organizations, pollution and abuse of the oceans will kill all coral reefs by the year 2050. In the Florida Keys, in the southern part of the U.S. about 90 percent of the coral reef is already gone. Hurricanes, pollution and global warming, are responsible.

But now there is a new hope: the coral polyps, living animals that make up the reefs. The new Coral Genetic Bank is working to repopulate dead and depleted coral in the Keys.

Coral reefs have been here for millions of years. They are the most complex and colorful tropical ecosystem, only comparable to the rain forest in the richness of life. Over 4,000 different species of fish, hundreds of species of coral and thousands more kinds of plants and animals inhabit the reefs. Millions of people around the world depend on coral reefs for food, protection and jobs. But human activities are destroying the reefs so fast that they could take centuries to recover. "Coral reefs make up 1 percent of all of the footprint of the world oceans," says David Lackland, marine biologist at Mote Marine Laboratories in Summerland Keys in Florida, and an expert in coral reproduction and restoration. "In that 1 percent it is said that between a quarter and a third of all aquatic species either spend their whole life or an intricate part of their life on or around that one percent which is our coral reefs. If those reefs were to disappear it would affect all other life in the ocean, most likely affected negatively making it non existent."

But within the last few decades, the Florida Keys have lost 90 percent of their coral coverage. Now many areas that used to team with life are just rocks and desert.

"Our coral coverage is so low that in the blink of an eye we're going to lose it all," he adds.

In order to stop or at least slow down the process of destruction, David has started a new and promising project: the creation of a coral genetic bank.

"A genetic bank of corals would be basically like a living library of representatives of each of the stony corals that we have here in the western Atlantic," he explains.

David has collected samples of 27 of the more than 50 species of hard coral in the Keys, mostly those from shallow waters where they are more exposed to busy boat traffic and human activity.

"All of the corals that we get are from boat grounding or some sort of man made incident or situations where the corals would otherwise be laid to waste," he says.

Hard corals grow in colonies and are the architects of coral reefs. Once wounded hard coral is recovered, David starts the immediate process of healing, fragmentation and new growth. Information is kept for every sample, such as the location of its recovery, the date and water conditions. Most importantly, is the creation of an extensive stock of living coral, for the first time in history. But animals that we know as corals are not easy to maintain. Under a controlled environment, the first coral colonies of the bank are now starting to grow.

"Porites-Porites is actually a very easy coral to grow, however is a very slow coral, this is a guy that may only grow one or two millimeters a year," David Lackland says.

Within a few years, the coral bank will be able to help repopulate dead and depleted coral. In addition, it will serve in the research of reef diseases.

But the incubation of the "brew stocks" or parent colonies for a genetic bank is just the beginning. Recently Mote Marine Laboratories established a Coral Nursery, 11 kilometers away in the Atlantic. Alicia Ferrer, from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and David Lackland have teamed up on two projects: the development of baby corals or small colonies and the replanting of larger pieces into the reef.

"Once we plant the seeds it is going to take up to hundreds of years for the corals to reestablished themselves in colonies, especially to the masses that were destroyed originally," he says.

One week after this nursery was established, it endured its first hurricane. Most of them survived. Now Alicia and David are putting them back together and watching them closely.

A few meters away, is the second part of the nursery: the restoration of bigger pieces of coral, cemented back to the reef after a ship grounding cause extensive damages.

"Maybe coming back in a year it won't be as noticeable and maybe some of the tissue will have recover," says Alicia Ferrer. "But it will never look the same, it will never look as whole as it once did."

"Is not just a matter of reproducing this coral it is a matter of the whole reef health," says David Lackland. "What we're doing here is simply one part of the whole picture."

The efforts of Mote Marine Laboratories to create a coral genetic bank and the Marine Sanctuary to keep the coral reef alive face many challenges.

Over-fishing of the ocean, pollution and the growth of recreational boating to nearly one million boats in Florida alone are just part of the problem. The harvesting and sales of coral dead or alive around the world continue to increase. A store in Key West is just one example of the coral market. Even though the harvesting of coral in the U.S. is illegal, the sale of coral coming from other parts of the world is not regulated. And many people, unaware of the extensive damage caused to the most diverse ecosystem of our planet, are willing to purchase coral.