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Corals in Crisis: Saving America’s Barrier Reef

Corals in Crisis: Saving America’s Barrier Reef

By Sara Stevens, Aquatics Manager at Butterfly Pavilion 

Working in conservation has taught us many things. The first is that an ecosystem, and the animals that call it home, are often far more fragile and susceptible to environmental change than we might think. Here in Colorado, we’ve seen many examples of something small and seemingly insignificant growing into a large and unstoppable force. Whether it is an unattended camp fire during a dry season, or a pine boring beetle, little changes can spark the destruction of thousands of acres of forest habitat before we often realize their threat. One important takeaway: It is often the small things that are the downfall of giants. And this is the case far beyond the borders of our state. In the case of the Florida reef tract, it is a microscopic enemy that has led to an unprecedented threat to an invaluable ecosystem.

The Florida reef tract is a 360-mile stretch of coral reef ecosystems forming the third largest barrier reef in the world, and the only living barrier reef in North America. It is America’s barrier reef. While barrier reefs serve important ecological functions as nurseries for fish and storm barriers for coastal habitats, they are also vital to local economies. Activities utilizing the reef tract are estimated to generate up to $6.4 billion dollars in income each year, supporting over 70,000 jobs within the region. Coral reefs are delicately balanced and when the corals themselves die the consequences are often huge. Like a rainforest without trees, the other animals are forced to move on now that they are unable to support themselves in the barren landscape of coral skeletons.  With over 540 species of coral and fish making the reef tract their home, a future without this habitat is unthinkable.

In 2014, the northernmost tip of the Florida reef tract located off the coast of Port St. Lucie, FL, experienced a small outbreak of a new and unknown disease. This disease, now called Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD), was quick to spread throughout the different coral species along the reef. As it spread it was found that once a coral was infected it had almost a 100% chance of dying. Global issues like climate change, pollution, and other factors take a heavy toll, weakening habitats and making corals more susceptible to infection. In four years the SCTLD disease has spread over a 100 miles southward, impacting over 20 different species of reef building corals and reducing their abundance by 50-90%.

And while it seems like the odds are insurmountable; all is not lost and there is still hope to save the reef.

Helping Nature Respond to Crisis

In response to the disease crisis, multiple government agencies, including the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Coral Reef Rescue Program, came together to form the Florida Coral Rescue Team. This team went on to develop a revolutionary Coral Rescue Plan. The plan required the removal of healthy coral specimen, lovingly dubbed ‘reef-ugees’, of the most susceptible species from places still untouched by the disease and placing them in land-based ‘arks’. The goal was to save as many ‘reef-ugees’ as possible to ensure these species wouldn’t be brought to the brink of extinction. This monumental undertaking is an unprecedented response to an epidemic in coral reefs and an example of everyone coming together to give Mother Nature a helping hand.

In 2018, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) – the organization which sets the accreditation standards for zoological facilities in the United States – was approached and invited to support this first-of-its-kind, large-scale rescue operation. The request was for AZA-accredited institutions, like Butterfly Pavilion, to volunteer their expertise and space to maintain these healthy corals until a time when they can be returned to the reef. To maintain the necessary genetic diversity to support future restoration efforts, once the reefs are healthy again, nearly 5,000 corals need to find homes within facilities across the country. Of the 236 zoos and aquariums accredited by AZA, only 22 facilities have been accepted as coral holders. Butterfly Pavilion, having the necessary invertebrate expertise, is one of those facilities accepted as a holder for the project. This commitment, a willingness to volunteer the resources and facility space required to house these corals for a minimum of 3 years without any funding provided by the project, was something we were honored to take on.

In early 2019, Butterfly Pavilion committed to having a system ready to receive coral by early 2020.  Since then, we have been working diligently and quickly to create an exhibit capable of supporting these essential animals (pictured below). In early February we will receive 21 individual coral to be housed in our new system, located within the entrance to our Water’s Edge exhibit.  As the only facility in Colorado currently committed to holding coral, we are excited to welcome these ‘reef-uges’ into our facility and tell their story to our guests and members!

 

Though the road ahead is long and uncertain, as most of these corals have never before been kept in human care, we are honored to be playing a vital role in ensuring their survival. While the thousands of miles that separate us from the Florida reef tract may make it seem like it is impossible for us to have an impact, our commitment to this project shows that no crisis is too distant to receive our help and no one is too small to make a difference.

Come visit Butterfly Pavilion to learn more about this amazing project and how you can help, even here in Colorado!

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