Marine scientists hope ”test-tube coral babies” will take root to help restore a tract of reef ravaged by a 1984 ship grounding in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
A team of University of Miami marine science researchers is collecting coral eggs and sperm all this week during an annual reproductive ritual, dubbed coral spawning.
Looking like an upside-down, underwater snowstorm, most corals in the Keys, Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean release eggs and sperm into the water a few days after the full moon in August.
In the wild, eggs and sperm randomly mix and fertilize to become larvae. Some take root to become foundation blocks for new coral.
Researchers led by Margaret Miller, an ecologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, gather spawn in cone-shaped, tent collectors anchored over portions of the coral reef off Key Largo.
The spawn is blended in jars and the portion that fertilizes is transported to a field laboratory.
“From that stage, we hope we have embryos,” Miller said.
“It’s a fairly labor-intensive process over several days of siphoning off waste products and providing them fresh sea water for a week.”
Beginning this weekend, Miller’s team plans to take the larvae to the site of the M/V Wellwood, a 400-foot freighter that ran aground on Molasses Reef off Key Largo Aug. 4, 1984.
The grounding destroyed nearly all corals in an area totaling about 5,000 square feet.
Using funds from fines paid by the ship’s owners, much of the site was restored structurally in 2002, but there has not been evidence of hard coral growth.
Researchers will install fine mesh enclosure tents around limestone-based, artificial reefs and place free-swimming larvae inside.
Miller hopes the larvae will attach to the reefs and mature into polyps, initial building blocks for a coral colony.
Even though coral maturation is extremely slow, growing anywhere from a third of an inch to less then four inches each year, success of the project could eventually mean hope for declining coral reefs around the world, said Miller, adding that currently there is a high mortality rate for lab-produced coral larvae.
“There’s millions and millions of eggs even our team (off Key Largo) is able to collect,” she said.
“If we can learn how to enhance the survivorship of larvae to settle and become new corals on reefs, that is huge potential.”