Researchers are learning more about coral reefs — and what's needed to keep them thriving off of Florida's coast — thanks to a grant from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Through its Florida’s Wildlife Legacy Initiative, the FWC has awarded a State Wildlife Grant to researchers with The Nature Conservancy in Florida, University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science, FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, and Mote Marine Laboratory to study multispecies coral restoration.
Restoring coral reefs could help them become more resilient to the impacts of climate change.
“Experimenting with new coral restoration techniques,” said Chris Bergh, South Florida conservation director, “is vital to advancing the science and practice of reef restoration in Florida."
Coral reefs have been in decline in Florida since the 1970s due to a combination of stressors, some that still exist and some that have largely been reduced. However, live coral cover remains less than 10% and no significant recruitment of corals has been observed in the last 10 years.
Many organizations throughout Florida are working in partnership to help jump-start reef recovery by propagating corals and outplanting them to degraded sites.
Most coral restoration efforts to date have focused on the fast-growing staghorn and elkhorn corals.
Healthy reefs include many species of coral. Restoration efforts have begun to focus on a variety of species, including boulder corals.
A major concern in planting boulder corals, is their slow growth rate and the effects competitor species have on the success of boulder coral restoration projects. Macroalgae can inhibit coral settlement and growth, and can even smother existing small corals. Palythoa, which looks like a coral but is actually a colonial organism that is related to the anemone that does not contribute to reef growth, now occupies much of the bare reef substrate in Florida, and is an indication of an unhealthy reef system.
Researchers are working to understand the influence competitor species have on restored coral colonies. They'll use this information to help develop methods for reducing the harmful effects competitors have on restored corals. This is a high priority research topic because of the impact it could have on coral restoration.
Three Types of Coral
Researchers have outplanted 60 individual coral colonies of three species: great star coral, staghorn coral, and mountainous star coral.
Our research project is comparing different methods for managing the amount of algae and Palythoa (a colonial invertebrate that is a common coral competitor on degraded reefs) that comes into contact with the outplanted colonies.
To measure the results, some sites will be left as is while others are regularly cleared of competitors.
The results of this ongoing study help researchers understand the benefits and costs of clearing out competitor species.