When you think of the Florida coast and the Gulf of Mexico, do you picture its beautiful clear waters and fantastic beaches? Lying just under the surface of southern Florida's waters is an entire ecosystem called the Florida Reef Tract. A popular snorkeling destination, and the world's third-largest barrier reef, the Florida Reef Tract is facing an unprecedented disease outbreak.
Since first observed in 2014 in Miami-Dade County, the disease has spread to the northern areas of the Florida Reef Tract and in April of 2018, reached the Lower Keys. In a few short years, the disease has affected 55% of coral species in the area and often results in 100% fatality of affected corals. It is expected that in a very short time, one-third of the coral species found in Florida will become ecologically extinct, leaving nothing more than a few relic corals dotting the Florida Reef Tract.
For the first time, AZA professionals and resources have been sought out by State and Federal agencies to help manage and respond to a marine environmental crisis. The Museum & Aquarium answered the call and was the first institution outside of Florida to receive these imperiled corals when we accepted 33 coral colonies from unaffected areas of the Florida Reef Tract.
Working together, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC), NOAA Fisheries Service, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection are coordinating this rescue project. With their leadership and the assistance of AZA facilities across North America, it is our hope the Florida Reef Tract will survive and eventually flourish for generations to come.
The Museum & Aquarium plans to house these genetically valuable coral colonies as long as it takes to enable researchers to determine what exactly led to this disease outbreak and to ensure the habitat is again suitable for these species in the wild. Our goals are to prevent ecological extinction along the Florida Reef Tract and help maintain as much genetic diversity as possible in preparation for restoration and future disturbances.
Where to find on campus: in the Rivers to the Sea exhibit in the National River Center.