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The Great Return: Coral returns after unprecedented summer evacuation

Mote Marine Lab Coral Returns
Posted at 11:04 AM, Nov 21, 2023

FLORIDA KEYS, Fla. — You might remember seeing the headlines over the summer about mass coral die offs and extremely high-water temperatures in the Florida Keys. During that time, thousands of corals were evacuated to help preserve these vulnerable ecosystems. And now those corals are being returned to the oceans in underwater nurseries.

"7,000 colonies have gone out to date, and we have 1000s more in the various stages of that process," said Dr. Jason Spadaro, Mote’s Coral Reef Restoration Research Program Manager.

Those corals were evacuated during the record-breaking heat wave in July. During that time, locations in the Florida Keys and Florida Bay saw water temperatures reaching 100 degrees. When waters stay too hot for too long, many corals will release the symbiotic algae that feeds and gives the coral its color. And now Mote is learning from those coral.

"What survived, why it survived, where it survived, and how we can integrate those into the restoration process even more," said Dr. Spadaro.

Part of the fix for our reefs is to plant corals back into the natural reef. But those corals need a high likelihood of survival to thrive.

"Breeding parents that are resilient to one stress or a suite of stresses with parents that are resilient to another suite of stresses to get juveniles that are resistant to combination of thereof," said Dr. Spadaro.

Mote then plans to plant these stress resistant corals back on the natural reef.

"We are putting the corals that have the adaptive potential to deal with these stresses, as they happen again and again, which they will,” Dr. Spadaro. “So, we are building resilience into that restored community."

But, like Dr. Spadaro inferred, with climate change and a warming ocean, these high temperature bleaching events could become more frequent.

"There is quite a bit of speculation that this summer is just the warmup for next summer,” Dr. Spadaro. “And we are ready for it. We saw the resilience in our restored communities, in our natural community, and our restoration pipeline."

Unfortunately, the living coral on Florida's Coral Reef only covers less than 5% of the reef. This makes natural recovery unlikely. Mote says the recovery of function is likely dependent on human restoration.