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A million tiny life rafts

Scientists in Ruskin nurse fragments of coral, creating healthy colonies to join the struggling ones in the Keys.

By CURTIS KRUEGER
Published April 9, 2007


On a night of fierce winds and savage waves, the freighter Miss Beholden started taking on water. The 142-foot ship was 5 miles off Key West, carrying 20 tons cargo of candy and cigarettes, and straining against what later would be called the no-name storm. With water pooling inside the ship, the captain feared it would sink. So to save the crew, he ran the ship aground. Fourteen years later, scientists from the Florida Aquarium in Tampa are still trying to repair the damage caused that night - not to the freighter, but to the delicate coral reef it smashed into.

The scientists have nursed dozens of tiny coral fragments in a lab in Ruskin, and transported them to Western Sambo Reef in the Keys.

It's all part of a complicated experiment to find a new way to save Florida's vast coral reefs, which lately have been dying from everything from shipwrecks to pollution to climate change. The idea is to grow coral in labs, kind of like fish farms, so they can be returned to their natural settings in Florida's struggling coral reefs.

Ilze Berzins of the Florida Aquarium, who is in charge of the effort, said it's more than an interesting scientific pursuit. Because of all the dangers facing Florida's coral reefs today, she said, doing something to restore them is urgently needed.

"If we can't come up with answers to our environmental problems," she said, "we're not being good stewards."

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Coral are animals related to sea anemones and jellyfish, whose skeletons can form rocklike structures that make up reefs. They have tiny mouths that they can open to swallow plankton, and also get nourishment from algae in the surrounding water. But two species of coral last year were listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act.

Reefs are not only a big attraction for divers and tourists, but they also are the backbone of an ecosystem that supports a wide diversity of fish and other undersea life. Scientists want to protect the coral to save the surrounding environment.

This project has its roots in a conversation about the state's coral that Berzins had with Craig Watson from the Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory in Ruskin, and an official from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

They developed a plan: Take some tiny bits of coral from a construction site in the Keys. Study the coral in a lab, watch it grow, make sure it's healthy. And then find a way to return it to the wild in hopes that it will flourish.

A look around Berzins' office - it's one of those nooks you can't see on a normal tour of the Florida Aquarium - shows what makes her a good candidate to lead this effort: posters from academic conferences and pictures of seascapes, just as you would expect from a marine biologist with a doctorate.

But her shelves also contain books with titles such as Goat Medicine and Zoo and Wild Animal Medicine. That's because she also is a veterinarian. She specializes in aquatic medicine - a fish doctor, you could say.

After obtaining government grants, she and colleagues studied the coral and developed health certificates for the tiny animals - a way of determining whether they were healthy enough to be put back in the wild. Scientists from the University of South Florida, Florida Atlantic University and Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota have assisted in the research.

Some of the tiny corals from the Keys came to the Aquarium. Others went to Hillsborough County, to the Tropical Aquaculture Lab in Ruskin. This University of Florida lab works closely with the tropical fish industry, which has a large presence in Tampa Bay. Still others went to Mote.

A challenging process

Scientists at the Hillsborough lab went to work with equipment similar to what you might get from Lowe's or Home Depot. They cut the corals with a tile saw, and used epoxy to glue them onto small concrete disks. They monitored the different species of brain coral, boulder coral and others.

In December, scientists went to Western Sambo Reef and used more epoxy to glue the disks in place.

"I like the challenge," said Ryan Czaja of the Aquarium, who dives to place and inspect the coral. "It's something I always felt, why can't it be done?"

Everyone in the project stressed that growing coral in "farms" and placing it in the wild is a complicated process that may take years to accomplish and study. But they have high hopes.

"If restoration of coral reefs is going to occur, you need corals," Watson said of the aquaculture lab. "If we can't grow them outside of the coral reef, you're not going to get them."

Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8232. Information from the Miami Herald was used in this report.