diver with coralThis week Shedd Aquarium took part in a rescue operation in the Florida Keys that combined military precision with extreme environmental sensitivity to save more than 1,500 coral colonies and fragments from destruction. That’s no surprise because the request for assistance in saving the corals came from the Naval Air Station Key West and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

The corals in question—representing more than 19 stony and soft species and many as large as boulders—grew on a seawall on the Navy’s Mole Pier in Key West harbor. In fact, they flourished there because the pier is in a “no-take zone,” or federally protected area where removal of any native species is prohibited.

The seawall that was the foundation of this lush artificial reef, however, had deteriorated to the point that the Navy had to reconstruct a 425-foot section. But the Navy also wanted to limit the impacts on the healthy corals. The sanctuary’s resource manager oversaw the permitting process that allowed the protected corals to be removed and relocated to sanctuaries and zoological organizations so that the Navy could proceed with the necessary repairs.

In the first phase of the operation, Navy divers and contractors, who had been trained by sanctuary marine biologists in coral removal and handling, relocated the largest corals—up to 2½ feet in diameter—to the sanctuary’s nearby coral nursery. Many of these specimens and colonies will be incorporated into restoration projects in the 2,900-square-nautical-mile Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, including repairing reefs ripped up by vessel groundings.

After that, Shedd and several other U.S. aquariums and zoos with coral propagation programs were invited to salvage specimens smaller than 6 inches in diameter for use in their exhibits and research programs. Shedd, which has had a coral propagation program for almost two decades, sent three of its coral experts to Key West: George, director of fishes; Mark, collections manager for special exhibits; and John, co-caption of Shedd’s research vessel, the R/V Coral Reef II.

“Shedd Aquarium is committed to conservation, so we were eager to respond to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to get involved,” said Mark.

divers gearing upThe permit issued to Shedd by the sanctuary’s resource manager allowed the team to remove 58 pieces of coral, including a variety of star coral and brain coral species, as well as soft corals such as sea fans. Each fragment, which should grow into a colony, was triple-wrapped in saltwater-filled bags to keep it from bumping and bruising, then placed in a Styrofoam-insulated box with a heat pack to maintain a stable temperature. Then the corals were shipped overnight to Shedd. Now they are quarantined and acclimating in Shedd’s coral propagation area.

“We’re watching to make sure they don’t bleach due to environmental changes,” says Mark, “and making sure no hitchhikers that could damage them came along.”

Many of the corals will stay in the propagation area “to get some of the species to take off for future exhibits,” says George. A few, however, should be added to the seahorse habitats in several weeks.

“It was phenomenal to be a part of the rescue,” said George. “It was definitely a learning experience for us, as well as a chance to help out with in-situ animals and share some of our collective knowledge.”

Mark added, “This team effort with the Navy and our conservation partners allowed us to save coral that might have been lost, aid our ongoing research to understand how to protect coral all over the world, and give Shedd guests the opportunity to see corals that are rarely exhibited in public aquariums.”

“It was definitely a win-win-win scenario,” said George.

Posted by Karen Furnweger, web editor