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Coral grown at Florida Aquarium will help replenish reef

It’s the first time this species of coral has been returned to the wild after being grown in an aquarium.

APOLLO BEACH, Fla. — For the first time, scientists from the University of Miami are taking a fragile species of coral grown at the Florida Aquarium and carefully placing it back where it belongs on the Florida Coral Reef.

“It’s like watching your kids go off to college,” said Kari O'Neil, a senior coral scientist at the Florida Aquarium.

Since 2014, researchers from across Florida have been desperately trying to save the reef from a mysterious illness that’s killing off coral at an alarming rate.

“It can wipe out 88 percent or more of the highly susceptible species,” O'Neil said.

Credit: Florida Aquarium

Several years ago the Florida Aquarium along with universities and research institutes across the southeast started teaming up to rescue healthy coral from the reef, bring it to facilitates like the Florida Aquarium to not only keep it alive but help it reproduce. The result: brand new coral which now, just over a year later, is heading back home and could eventually help ensure the reef’s survival.

“It’s just a concept that we can have thousands of corals being held in safe conditions, in human care, in aquariums -- we can keep them alive for decades and then we can continue to make thousands and thousands of offspring from many different species for years to come,” O’Neil said.

The corals are grown on tiny squares of ceramic, which are carefully reattached to the reef.

“We call it 'outplanting' but it really is a lot like planting a plant in your garden,” O’Neil said.

A tiny spear, which is really nothing more than a wooden barbecue skewer, is then placed in the ground pointing up to protect the tiny coral from predatory fish.

Researchers from Miami will continue to monitor the coral’s health.

“Problems in Florida’s coral reef aren’t going to be solved overnight,” O’Neil said. “But having these techniques makes us armed and ready to go so when conditions improve and the reef can start actually holding its own, we can be out there with thousands and thousands of corals to restore the population that has been lost.”

Credit: Florida Aquarium

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