Rising From the Rubble

The freighter Wellwood ran aground on Molasses Reef in August of 1984, two weeks after I started as manager of the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary. Running at cruise speed when it hit, the ship bulldozed a 6,937-square-yard swath of living coral, reducing it to rubble. To make matters worse, the entire substrate beneath the ship was damaged, and it took years of reconstruction to stabilize.

In 2003, licensed marine specimen collector Ken Nedimyer and his daughter, Kelly, transplanted six small staghorn coral colonies on the site as part of a 4-H project. Since then, Nedimyer helped form the Coral Restoration Foundation, and the six original colonies have multiplied into hundreds of colonies by asexual fragmentation. That’s good news in itself, but the real excitement occurred on Aug. 25, 2009, (coincidentally, the 25th anniversary of the Wellwood grounding) when the transplanted staghorns were observed participating in a mass spawn. For coral restoration projects, that’s a momentous step.

John Halas, who was the sanctuary’s biologist when the Wellwood went aground and is now the Upper Keys regional manager of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, called the spawning very good news. He added, however, that while transplanting staghorn coral is a good way to repair limited damage sites, it’s not an effective solution to regenerating large areas. Part of the reason for this limitation is the “rob Peter to pay Paul” aspect of transplanting. Where do you take coral from to transplant it to another area?

One solution has been to rescue corals from construction sites. In an effort headed by Lauri MacLaughlin, a resource management specialist with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, almost 200 corals were harvested from a Navy seawall prior to a dredging project in Key West. The corals were transferred to a temporary nursery adjacent to NOAA’s Nancy Foster Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center and have been made available for transplant and research projects in a variety of locations. Since its inception in 2003, the project has rescued nearly 7,000 corals and coral fragments. “One of the unexpected benefits is that these seawall and harbor corals are exceptionally resilient,” said MacLaughlin. “They tolerate transplantation well and are remarkably resistant to disease.” Tough neighborhoods must breed tough corals.

Diver poses next to corals while holding a small coral growth in their left hand

Another solution to the problem of obtaining donor corals is to harvest larva during mass spawning and grow your own. Margaret Miller, an ecologist from the Southeast Fisheries Science Center in Miami, captured larva during the mass spawning of the Coral Restoration Foundation’s transplants and has successfully gotten the larva to settle on plates and begin the normal life cycle. Growing full-sized adult colonies from captured larva, however, is the next hurdle.

While research continues, future plans include transplanting elkhorn to Molasses Reef in addition to staghorn. Nedimyer already has elkhorn seedlings, gathered from loose fragments, growing in an offshore nursery. The Coral Restoration Foundation could use your help mounting several hundred elkhorn cuttings, as well as many more staghorn cuttings, before they are ready to transplant in the next year or two. “It’s both fun and productive,” Nedimyer says, “like working in a garden, but you don’t get dirty.”

Get Involved

Serious about giving something back to the reef? The Coral Restoration Foundation offers three ways to get involved:

  • Volunteer for a “hands-on” experience in the entire
  • Adopt-a-Coral to support a new coral colony named after
  • Donate to the Foundation.

© Alert Diver — Q1 Winter 2010