Jun 22

Reef Relief

There’s no question that coral is beautiful, and that we’re all mesmerized by the stunning coral reef exhibits in The Suzanne and Walter Scott Aquarium, but what does it have to do with us in landlocked Nebraska?

“It’s difficult for someone in the Midwest to fathom what they can do to help coral, but it’s really about ocean health in general. If we make healthy oceans, we make healthy animals,” says Mitch Carl, curator of aquatics at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. “We wouldn't be doing this if the oceans were doing well.”

This is the zoo’s research in coral reproduction and participation in SECORE (SExual COral REproduction), a global network of scientists, aquarium professionals and people in coastal areas whose lives are directly affected by coral and ocean health. The Omaha zoo is proud to give $12,500 annually in support of SECORE, as well as pay for the research that Mitch and his team are doing on coral all around the world.

“Corals have been in decline since late 1970s early ‘80s, especially in the Caribbean, where we do a lot of our work,” says Carl. “In the Indo-Pacific, it’s a little better because it's such a huge area, but, for example, the Great Barrier Reef – which has done well for eons – now, all of the sudden, isn’t doing as well.”

Carl cites the usual suspects for coral’s decline: disease, sedimentation, development, over-fishing, and, of course, climate change. “When the ocean gets too warm, 84 or so degrees or higher, coral goes through a process called bleaching,” he says. When corals are bleached, they expel the symbiotic algae living in their tissues and become totally white. Occasional bleaching (every 10-15 years or so) can be a good thing because the process eliminates some weedy corals, opening up space for more diversity, but, Carl cautions, “When they get hit year after year, it becomes bad.”

Carl says that coral reproduction hits a bottleneck when there are no algae-free areas for the coral to settle on and start growing. To help jump-start this phase, Carl and his colleagues travel to the coral reefs, collect eggs and sperm from endangered corals, fertilize and then raise up the coral larvae. They then try to re-seed the reefs with the new coral. It’s incredibly unpredictable work, because coral is tough to raise in captivity. “We can't spawn them here and then put them back in the ocean,” says Carl. Doing so could mean exposing the coral to a new disease, or introducing an invasive species that could wipe out other life on the reef.

Carl says that recent interest and financial investment in the project is enabling them to ramp up their efforts. “The ideal is when the corals we put back on the reef start to spawn themselves. We’re trying to do that in a large area: acres upon acres of reefs. To see them grow up and spawn, and to go from a low number of corals to a really high number, is a cool thing.”

Individuals can do their part to help save the world’s coral by being good stewards of the environment and reducing their use of plastic bags and other single-use plastic items. For more information about to support the zoo’s coral conservation work, please visit our website, or call 402-738-2073.