Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Lifesaving Transplant for Coral Reefs

This is a subject that is dear to my heart.  Early in my marriage I kept a coral reef tank, and spent a small fortune doing so.  But I was a well paid computer consultant working long term contracts for the airlines.  Corals are very sensitive creatures. They literally are the "canary in the mine" as far detecting pollution.  

Corals require very clean very oxygenated water that is not too deep.  The surfs of the reef stir up the water to pull oxygen from the air and the motion of the surf itself plays into the health of the reef.  Corals spawn during full moons, and also in advance of hurricanes and cyclones (they detect a drop in barometric pressure and take advantage of rough seas to spread their young). They have a symbiotic algae internally that provides oxygen in exchange for CO2 and a place to soak up the suns rays.  Corals are sea animals that capture calcium carbonate from the water and make their shells with it.  I have grown my own corals, and it is not easy but can be done with attention to details and water quality, they do require supplemental calcium in the aquarium environment as they will deplete the calcium in the sea salt.  Any organics, certain minerals - especially phosphates which generate algae growth or chemicals that change the natural pH levels will kill off a reef.  

I had a tridachna clam once, it was small one that I bought, and since it did come from a reef originally it was broken from it natural base.  The store told me to wrap it in a cold wet cloth and moor it to a rock with candle wax. I tried that but got the claim too hot and it started dying and the tank was took cold for the wax to hold it in place. I quickly thought up another solution, bought some quick setting anchoring cement, and stuck it to the rock with a substance the clam would consider a rock since it was mineral based.  That worked to hold it upwards to the lights.  But the clam was sick and not looking good and I was depressed the poor clam might not make it because of my ignorance.

 I had two cleaner shrimp that I always had in the tank, they are like little dermatologists for fish, they use their claws to remove parasites from the outside of fish and fish line up like cars into the local carwash for cleaning.  Cleaner shrimp are red and white striped a bit like a barber pole to fish and all fish know what that color means.  The cleaner shrimp saw the dying clam, and started using their claws like scalpels, cutting away the dying tissues and eating them.  What was left was living but severely distressed but it was no longer rotting.  Within a month there was new growth in the clam, within 3 months the clam was bigger than ever and thriving.  My point being that with a little observation of how the sea life systems work, reefs can be fixed and repaired.

I was watching a Swedish documentary one night in Atlanta on human reproduction, it was amazing video footage from micro video cameras within a woman of fallopian tubes brushing ovaries as they sensed the egg about to emerge.   I glanced over at the reef tank and noticed that soft corrals (non-calcium shell corals) looked and behaved at feeding time much like fallopian tubes within women during ovulation.  For some reason I assumed fallopian tubes were attached to the ovaries but they are not, they gently brush the ovaries and sweep the egg within themselves like coral consuming a tiny plankton.  I was dumbstruck by the holographic patterns within the human body, we are literally walking oceans, and our blood water chemistry is identical to the seas on this planet.  The sense of a Creator's hand in all this was obvious.

When I moved to California and was not able to move the tank, I took corals and fish to the fish store in Atlanta and sold them back to them, so that another hobbyist could enjoy them as I did without disturbing pristine coral reefs.  I really enjoyed keeping a reef tank, the complexity of life within them is a true education. 

As I learned more of how corals are harvested, and some species of fish, I don't know if I would keep a tank again.  Its well known that in the Philippines people pour toxins in the reefs to stun the fish so they are easy to capture for the aquarium trade, those toxins kill coral.  In other poor tropical countries similar things are happening by people just trying to earn a living.  Poverty causes destruction of the ecosystems.

In Australia there's a move to dredge a huge channel through the Great Barrier Reef to sell coal to China.  Currently it looks like the government will have its way on that, but perhaps saner minds will  prevail.   -AK

A Lifesaving Transplant for Coral Reefs


SUMMERLAND KEY, Fla. — David Vaughan plunges his right arm down to his elbow into one of nine elevated tanks where thousands of tiny colonies of coral are growing at an astonishing rate in shaded seclusion next to the Mote Tropical Research Laboratory.

“Now this is the exciting part. You ready for this?” he asks, straining to be heard over the relentless hiss of filtered saltwater squirting from a maze of pipes and plastic tubing into the shallow fiberglass tank, the size of a dining-room table.

Dr. Vaughan, a marine biologist who is executive director of the laboratory, retrieves a flat rock from the bottom. A chocolate-brown colony of brain coral, nearly eight inches wide, has grown on the stony surface, its distinctive fleshy, serpentine folds nearly covering the rock.

A year ago the colony began as inch-and-a-half-wide coral fragments cut with a band saw from the same parent colony. As if doused with a growth elixir, these coral “seeds” began to grow 25 times as fast as they would in the wild.

And when arranged a few inches apart on the rock, the mini-colonies quickly advanced across the surface and fused to become a single grapefruit-sized organism that continues to grow.

Other species grown from tiny coral seeds in the Mote lab have developed even faster — up to 50 times their normal rate.

Dr. Vaughan and a staff biologist, Christopher Page, say this quick-grow technique, called microfragmenting, may make it possible to mass-produce reef- building corals for transplanting onto dead or dying reefs that took centuries to develop — perhaps slowing or even reversing the alarming loss of corals in the Florida Keys and elsewhere.

“This is real,” Dr. Vaughan said. “This potentially can be a fix.”

Other scientists are excited, too. While there are other efforts around the world to grow new coral, “this is easily the most promising restoration project that I am aware of,” said Billy Causey, a coral expert who oversees all federal marine sanctuaries in the Southeastern United States, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Dave and Chris are buying us time,” he added. “This will keep corals out there” until “we can come to understand what is happening to coral on the larger scale.”

Still, even Dr. Vaughan’s cheery optimism has its limits. A quarter of the earth’s corals have disappeared in recent decades, and the Mote scientists say no one can predict what will happen if the oceans continue to warm, pollution and acidification increase, overfishing further decimates species beneficial to coral, and land runoff continues to reduce the amount of life-giving sunlight that reaches the bottom.

“We do not know if this is a fix-all,” Mr. Page said. “At worst, we’re buying a little time. At best, we could restore the ecosystem.”

Living Rocks

On a breezy, sun-washed day, Dr. Vaughan, 61, welcomed a visitor to the Mote laboratory here, about 25 miles up the road from Key West.

He wore the uniform of the Keys — shorts, flip-flop sandals and a billowy white shirt. His shoulder-length hair, sun-bleached beard and weathered face speak of a lifetime working in the sun and saltwater.

For the past three years, he and Mr. Page have focused on “massive” corals, the species that create most of the structure on a living reef. These corals have proved less susceptible than other species to the effects of rising ocean temperatures, pollution and changes in water chemistry.

But unlike fast-growing branching corals, massive species like brain, star, boulder and mounding corals naturally grow less than two inches a year — so slowly they are nicknamed “living rocks.”

Scientists and marine aquaculturists are successfully growing staghorn and other branching corals in offshore nurseries for replanting in the wild. But until now, the slow growth rate of massive corals has stymied all efforts to produce these species in sufficient quantities for reef restoration.

The research facility over which Dr. Vaughan presides looks more like an oil refinery than a laboratory. A pump sucks up ancient seawater trapped in the porous limestone 80 feet below ground. The water is first treated in two 1,000- gallon fiberglass tanks to remove traces of ammonia, carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide. Then it flows through a maze of four-inch PVC pipes and into 30 outdoor 180-gallon fiberglass tanks, called raceways. A fine-mesh canopy over the tanks shades them from the subtropical sun.

In nine of these raceways, more than 7,000 brain, star, boulder and mounding corals grow in neat rows on different surfaces: cement pucks, specially manufactured ceramic wafers, or travertine tiles from the local Home Depot. Each had grown from a microfragment about the size of a pencil eraser.

The ‘Eureka Mistake’

Dr. Vaughan stumbled upon the microfragmenting idea eight years ago. He was transferring colonies of elkhorn coral between aquariums in his lab. He reached to the bottom of a tank to retrieve a colony growing on a two-inch concrete puck.

“Part of the coral had grown over the back side and had attached to the bottom of the aquarium,” he said. When he grabbed it, “it broke off and left two or three polyps behind. I thought I just killed those. But oh, well, I moved the puck over.”

A week later he happened to glance at the abandoned polyps — the individual hydra-shaped, genetically identical organisms that make up a coral colony — on the bottom of the aquarium. “I noticed that those one to three polyps were now five to seven polyps,” he said. “They not only had lived — they had grown and had doubled in size.”

It was, he said, “my eureka mistake.” He cut a few more polyps from the original colony and placed them on other pucks. “And they grew like crazy. The coral seems to want to repair itself quickly and grow back over its lost ground before something else takes its territory.”

But it wasn’t until Mr. Page was hired in 2011 that Dr. Vaughan first applied this insight to the large-scale production of massive corals.

Mr. Page, 29, had raised corals in an aquarium as a teenager in Buffalo. He knew that hobbyists and live-coral dealers routinely split growing colonies into pieces to sell or trade. “This was something that could be done,” he said. “I had done it as a hobbyist. It was a chance to apply what I had done on a much larger scale and actually accomplish something big.”

Three years later, he said, he can produce 1,000 microfragments just one centimeter square (one-sixth of a square inch) in four days. And with more space and adequate funding, he added, “the sky’s the limit.”

Will these coddled corals survive in the wild? Early tests have been encouraging. More than a year after they were transplanted to offshore test sites, 134 of 150 colonies grown from microfragments continue to flourish, Mr. Page said.

Last year he planted eight fragments of brain coral on 18 dead coral “heads” — colonies of genetically identical polyps — each about two feet wide.

“They’re doing well,” he said. “They’re sheeting over the entire structure really nicely. In a year or maybe two from now, you will see one continuous colony that would have taken 15 to 30 years to grow” in the wild.

And Dr. Vaughan said he planned to place 200 coral tiles on a dead 1,000- year-old coral head “the size of a Volkswagen” in hopes of restoring it in just a year.

“Sounds like science fiction, doesn’t it?” he said with a chuckle.

Creating a Coral Thicket

In June, Mote scientists won federal approval to begin their most ambitious project yet — to create a living coral thicket on the limestone skeleton of a dead reef half a mile off Big Pine Key, just east of Key West.

They have started planting 4,000 nursery-raised corals — symmetrical brain, boulder star, great star and massive starlet — on the 2.5-acre test site. Those species will join more than 1,000 staghorn coral raised in Mote’s offshore nursery by a team led by another staff scientist, Erich Bartels.

The goal, Dr. Vaughan said, is to create “in a very short period of time a reef like the reefs we remember” from decades ago.

The project, among the largest coral restorations ever attempted, is the first large-scale effort in the Keys, and one of the few in the world, to restore massive corals in the wild, Dr. Vaughan said. It is partly supported by a $35,000 grant from the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

By late October the Mote team had transplanted a total of 720 nursery corals to the offshore site in three separate plantings roughly a month apart.

The first planting, on July 25, was a disaster. Parrotfish found the nursery- raised corals particularly tasty. While some colonies were untouched, most “got chomped,” Mr. Page said.

The researchers adjusted their technique. Instead of transplanting corals directly from the nursery to the test site, they temporarily placed them under wire cages near their intended permanent homes.

“They are doing fantastic,” Mr. Page said. “Predation significantly decreased after they acclimatized to site conditions” and were then relocated to the test site — perhaps because of subtle shifts in the color of the colonies, changes in their internal chemistry or other factors. (Color matters, the scientists found. Predators seemed to pass up darker corals in favor of fluorescent green ones.)

Planting will continue indefinitely. The researchers want to identify the corals that fare best, and to determine the ideal length of time needed to acclimate each species to make them less attractive to hungry fish.

If successful, they plan to use their nursery-raised corals to restore other degraded reef sites throughout the Keys and train others to set up their own coral factories.

But as Mr. Page noted, time is running out. “This may be our last, best chance,” he said.

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