Coral Reef Restoration at Mote Marine Laboratory

Coral reefs blasted and bleached to skeletal bones greet visitors in many areas of the world where once teeming aquatic life amazed early divers. Causes of rapid and widespread coral loss include climate change, invasive species, diseases, destructive fishing techniques and pollution.  There are so many stressors on the coral reef system that we might ask ourselves “Is this the end?” But it is human nature to never give up, and it is the individual heroes that act to turn things around.  One such hero is Dr. Hanna Koch, a Postdoctoral Fellow with the German Research Foundation and Visiting Research Scientist at Mote Marine Laboratory’s Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research and Restoration (IC2R3) in the Florida Keys.

IC2R3 is utilizing a variety of approaches to study and restore coral reefs. The focus of Hanna’s work is using sexually-reproducing corals to learn which genetically-based traits may provide threatened coral species with increased resistance or resilience to environmental stressors linked to climate change, and then use this information to advance coral restoration strategies. She describes her mission as, “Using sexual propagation and managed breeding of endemic stress-tolerant corals to generate robust, genetically diverse offspring with increased adaptive potential that can then be used as part of Mote’s resilience-based coral reef restoration program.” In simpler terms, that means propagating and growing stress-resistant coral colonies in the laboratory and then transplanting them to a degraded reef, where they will hopefully be able to withstand stressful environmental conditions and produce strong offspring for decades to come.

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(All images copyright Mote Marine Laboratory, reproduced with permission)

Dr. Koch has been working with interns Cody Engelsma and Allyson DeMerlis, who recently graduated from Palm Beach Atlantic University and McGill University, respectively. The team first collects coral spawn from the field during the annual mass spawning event, which occurs in a specific time window every summer. In the wild, coral larvae start life swimming in the water column and then settle on a suitable settlement substrate. In the lab, the team settles the coral larvae on substrates called ‘plugs’ and then rears the sexual recruits through the year. When they are large enough, the growing colonies are moved to the reef. The team will then track them over time to learn if they are successfully sexually reproducing in the wild, a key component to sustaining and replenishing diverse adult coral populations.

Most corals exhibit a strong natural fluorescence and the researchers take advantage of this in several ways. In the lab they use the NIGHTSEA Stereo Microscope Fluorescence Adapter with Royal Blue excitation light for quickly identifying and more accurately quantifying young sexual recruits of various species on the settlement plugs. In the field, they will use the model BW-1 Dive Light to search for fluorescent recruits to check for successful spawning and recruitment from their study corals.

Two corals on settlement plugs fluorescing under the microscope illumination

Two corals on settlement plugs fluorescing under the microscope illumination

Mote’s research and restoration efforts are proceeding on other fronts as well, and their work will contribute to healthy corals reefs that protect coastlines, serve myriad ecological functions, and elicit wonder in future generations.

 

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