This may be among the more unusual medical interventions in recent history. For the past two years, researchers have been diving under the waves in South Florida and applying antibiotic secretions to thousands of coral colonies infected with the mysterious and deadly disease.
The effort is part of an unprecedented collaboration between conservation groups, researchers and biologists, several federal and state government agencies, Smithsonian, Disney, nationwide aquariums, special forces veterans, civic scientists and volunteer scuba divers, America’s only barrier reef.
Florida’s coral reefs are in deep trouble. For the past seven years, an infection called Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD) has flowed through the 225-mile length of the Florida Reef Tract from north Miami to Key West, a lethal pace that stunned conservationists. The disease killed a huge, locally famous colony of the Mountainous Star Coral, “Big Mamma,” which survived 330 years of hurricanes and industrialization within a few months. It has popped up in 19 other Caribbean countries
And the disease couldn’t have come at a worse time for sick reefs in Florida, which were already in a steep decline due to four decades of environmental stress.
“If you take the Atlantic Caribbean region, the keys were the pinnacle,” said Mike Goldberg, owner of Key Dives, a dive charter company based in Islamabad, Florida. “When it comes to corals, when it comes to fish life, it has size and diversity. With more than 10,000 dives around the world and in the Caribbean – having lived there for almost 14 years – there’s really nothing like it.”
A 1962 National Geographic Cover story at John Penencamp Coral Reef State Park in Florida (first issue of the magazine) Underwater color coating, Indeed) showed the vibrant field of solid coral.
By the time SCTLD arrived, 97 percent of that historic reef cover had already died. Scientists worry that this new threat could kill what was once a great ecosystem.
But now there is preliminary evidence that antibiotics can save some important corals, and an impressive recovery effort is underway to reproduce and reproduce the corals where they were once enriched. The fall of the Florida Reef is a tragic story, but if these current efforts can reverse that trend, it will be the largest and most innovative public-private environmental achievement in American history.
How to treat a sick coral
Erin Schilling, a researcher at the Harbor Branch Institute of Marine Science at the University of Florida Atlantic, recently returned from a trip to the arid Tortugas National Park on the far southwest edge of the Florida Key National Marine Sanctuary.
Dry tortoises were the last place on the Florida reef tract that had not yet been attacked by SCTLD, and because of its isolation, everyone expected it to remain untouched. However, the disease Arrived This June.
Scientists still don’t know exactly what SCTLD is – a viral or bacterial infection or perhaps a combination of both – even how it spreads. The disease is a threat because it targets slow-growing rocky corals ব boulder-shaped species such as stars and brain corals. These form the literal foundation of the reef ecosystem, creating 3D structures that shelter and sustain other species. Unlike past coral reefs flowing through the Florida Reef, SCTLD season is not waxy and eroded on its own, and when left untreated, the disease destroys 80 to 100 percent mortality for 20 or more species. It begins as a white patch that stretches across a coral colony for months, sometimes weeks, leaving nothing but a bleached skeleton.
The good news is that Schilling says he and other research divers treated 6,000 corals in dried tortillas with antibiotic paste to protect them from SCTLD.
Shilling published Research This April is showing positive results for the treatment of the Great Star Coral Colony with the common antibiotic amoxicillin. “In the case of what we call an individual wound, it’s a really high rate of treatment, basically white spots where coral tissue is losing,” he said.
Published by Dr. Karen Neely, a researcher at Nova Southeastern University More research This August reports that amoxicillin is also effective in treating long-term and recurrent infections.
“In our research we’ve only treated them once, and we’ve seen that they can still get the disease again, or maybe the disease can continue, but [Neely] It has even been able to show that sometimes after a few treatments, it seems like they are able to heal completely, ”Schilling says.
Scientists began using antibiotics in 2019 and tried to slow the progression of the disease across the reef. It was a gamble, since they didn’t know it would have any side effects on corals or nearby wildlife, but the alternative results were obvious.
“If we don’t do something, the corals will just die,” Schilling said. “This is a serious enough situation that requires a strong response. Hopefully it will work well for areas where the disease is still new. If we understand how this treatment works, it can be helpful in areas where rock is still present.” Not affected yet. “
The consequences of doing nothing for the tourism-dependent economy of Florida would be catastrophic. World-class fishing and scuba diving attracts millions of people every year. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Southeast Florida Reef is valued at. 5.5 billion and retains 20,000,000 full- and part-time jobs. The barrier reef, as the name implies, also protects the keys from hurricanes and large storms by soaking the wave action that would otherwise hit the low islands.
Diving underwater and manually applying goup to corals is an expensive, labor-intensive and time-consuming method, though and is ultimately just a stopgap measure.
Andy Brookner, Florida Key Marine Sanctuary Research Coordinator, That said, preserving the most valuable coral from a breeding point of view and reducing the amount of germs in the water.
“Right now the interventions are really challenging,” Brookner said, “we know we can’t save whole reefs by doing this, so we need to have a more holistic approach.”
Noah’s ark for coral
Before conservationists began experimenting with antibiotics, the outlook was so bad that several states and federal agencies formed a coral rescue team to collect samples from a gene bank, if some species became completely extinct.
The group began with day trips, but the disease spread so fast that they turned into a living ship, allowing them to collect endangered corals for more than one day at a time.
The problem was that they had no place to keep thousands of pieces of coral alive. Rescuers have reached out to the Zoo and Aquarium Association, the only facility with skills and equipment to keep the corals alive.
Gil McCray, director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, warned, According to Per The Washington Post.
One species, the Pillar Coral, was critically endangered in Florida before the disease struck. Pillar coral now “Practically extinct“In the Florida Reef Tract, according to a May letter in the Journal Frontiers in Marine Science; The remaining ones are so far away that they cannot reproduce.
There is hope though. In 2019, scientists at a Tampa aquarium announced that after working for two years, they persuaded Pillar Coral to make eggs in a laboratory. For the first time,, Collecting 20,000,000 coral larvae and potentially confirming the future of the species in Florida waters.
There are now Florida corals in 20 aquariums in 14 states. The next step is to bring the coral babies and grandchildren back to the reef.
A force of volunteers and lots of glue
In 2019, Florida launched the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which governs protected waters inside key national marine sanctuaries. “Mission: Iconic Reefs,“Among the keys is a 20-year plan to try to recover seven of the notable seven walls. The plan calls for the planting and planting of about 500,000 corals. Brookner called it “the biggest recovery effort to try for a coral wall anywhere in the world.”
To accomplish this, NOAA is relying on a number of offshore organizations such as the Total Marine Laboratory, Reef Renewal and Coral Restoration Foundation (CRF) for heavy lifting. The CRF maintains large underwater nurseries where it grows critically endangered staghorns and alcorn corals. Pieces of coral are planted in PVC “trees,” which are regularly cleaned by volunteer divers to keep them clean from algae. When the corals are large enough, they are transported to one of the various reefs.
Planting coral underwater is both difficult and delicate work, especially when you are pushing back through the geyser. Divers use chisels to tear clean patches of ocean hardbottom before gluing an epoxy and basically a piece of coral.
So far, the CRF says it has replanted 1,130,000 corals in chars since 200 years with the help of volunteer divers around the world.
Mike Goldberg, owner of Dive Shop, also started a local non-profit organization called I.CARE that works exclusively on the reef offshore of the Islamoras.
“The reason we started is not just to restore the rift, but to add the largest workforce in my belief, and it’s the recreational dive community,” Goldberg said.
Since the program began in January, I.CARE volunteers have planted about 2,000 corals on the reef, Goldberg says.
Another partner in the Florida Coral Rescue Project is Force Blue, a non-profit organization that gives fighter forces veterans to special forces what they call “mission therapy,” the opportunity to do some comfortable diving with a purpose. There has been a national football league for the last two years Partner A football-field-sized coral wall with Force Blue to restore Super LIV and Super Bowl LV.
Conservationists cannot control the two most important factors for coral health, water quality and water temperature, but hopefully at least give corals a chance to fight. Because corals can reproduce indiscriminately, basically cloning themselves, as well as through the ovaries, they can be broken into pieces that later become new, genetically identical colonies. This allows researchers not only to preserve and grow wild coral specimens, but also to test and select for those more resistant to disease or tolerant of extreme water temperatures. Pieces of those hardy people can be planted in the wild.
As part of the overall approach mentioned by Brookner, the initiative plans to reintroduce “grazer” species of animals, such as king crabs and forked urchins, which eat algae that can infest slow-growing corals. Urchins played this role in the Florida Key, but in the 1980s, a disease virtually wiped out the local population.
Since corals grow so slowly, it’s too early to say how well the reconstruction effort is doing, and generations, perhaps generations, perhaps before regaining their former glory.
“It’s been going to work for decades, but in my opinion, there will be a day where we will succeed,” Goldberg said.