Can Microfragmenting Save Coral?

A Healthy Reef in Indonesia

A Healthy Reef in Indonesia

In the lower Florida Keys, a coral breakthrough has been made. Due to the warming and acidification of the oceans, almost ¼ of all the world’s coral has died in the past few decades. But now, there may be a solution.

Dr. David Vaughan, a marine biologist and the executive director of Mote Tropical Research Laboratory, accidentally found a “quick grow” technique for coral, which he now calls “microfragmenting.”

Eight years ago, while moving a coral colony from one tank to another, some polyps that had grown over the substrate onto the bottom of the tank broke off. Vaughan assumed he had killed those polyps, but a few days later they had doubled in number on the glass bottom.

This is how Vaughan discovered the amazing healing ability of coral. When damaged it races to regrow, perhaps to prevent territory loss. This is the basis of Vaughan’s latest ambitious project – one of the largest attempted coral restorations ever. With this technique, transplanted coral can grow up to fifty times faster than they would in the wild.

Vaughan and his team have already begun transplanting 4,000 microfragments from the nursery into the wild. And, although some parrotfish predation halted initial efforts, new steps are effectively combating this issue.

It seems that microfragmenting holds much promise. Dr. Vaughan is optimistic: “At worst, we’re buying time. At best, we could restore the ecosystem.”



Saving Our Seas One “Frag” at a Time

While it’s true that coral reefs are beautiful, they are also much much more. The importance of reefs in the ocean can be compared to that of rain forests on land. They support incredibly diverse ecosystems by providing both food and shelter to a multitude of organisms.

The destruction of reefs also has a detrimental effect on humans. Over 500 million people depend on coral reefs for shoreline protection, food, and as a source of income. Without coral reef ecosystems, the fishing industry would lose a serious chunk of product. Tourism would be hurt as well.

20% of Earth’s coral reefs have been destroyed and another 20% has been badly damaged. That’s where the Coral Restoration Foundation comes in. Founded by Ken Nedimyer, the nonprofit has been growing and transplanting coral in the Florida Keys since 2001.

The Nedimyer’s team grows small fingers of coral by suspending them from the “branches” of a PVC “tree trunk.” The CRF method for culturing the “frags,” as small coral pieces or fragments are called, is unconventional but highly successful and creates a distinctive sunken landscape.

The Elkhorn coral frags that have grown large enough to be transplanted have seen a 100% survival rate. And the coral is not just surviving, but thriving! Most pieces have grown substantially since transplantation.


Baby Sea Turtle Salvation in Florida

When sea turtles hatch, they should be guided into the ocean by the moon, or light on the horizon. Nowadays, light pollution is driving sea turtles from their natural path, often into residential or commercial areas.

In Sarasota, Florida, one police officer was lucky enough to stumble upon several dozen hatchlings in the parking lot of the Lido Beach Resort while patrolling. The officer, Derek Conley, stopped traffic to put all of the baby turtles in a box. He then transported the turtles to the Gulf of Mexico for a safe release.

Although 3 hatchlings died before Officer Conley came to the rescue, he did manage to save 90-100 babies from almost certain doom.

Hatchlings in the Bay of Bengal

Hatchlings in the Bay of Bengal

Are “Frankenoranges” Really as Bad as They Sound?

In 2005, Florida’s famous orange groves were hit with a serious disease.  Citrus greening is caused by a bacterium known as Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus, which is carried by the Asian citrus psyllid, a small insect.  The disease is spread when an infected psyllid feeds on the greenery of an orange tree.  Affected orange trees produce oranges that are small, sour, and green.  So far, 2.5 million Florida orange trees have been infected, and subsequently chopped down and burned.  Neither this procedure nor the extensive pesticide spraying in attempt to eradicate the psyllid have been effective in stopping the spread of the disease.

The search for an orange tree species with immunity to the citrus greening disease also proved unfruitful, no pun intended.  It seems that the only remaining option, if the orange industry is going to survive, is to splice DNA from another species equipped with a gene to fight off the Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus bacteria.  With good reason, many Floridians are pushing for the creation of a GM orange.  The $9 billion orange industry supplies 76,000 jobs.

Before a GM orange can be stocked in your local grocery store there are several obstacles to overcome.  The project will be expensive and lengthy, possibly taking up to a decade to complete.  Then, once the trees are created, they must mature in the lab for two years until they are strong enough to be planted outside. Once planted, it will take another few years for the trees to produce fruit.

The other issue is public opinion.  Many are reluctant to accept the proof that GMOs aren’t dangerous, and worry about undetected risks. Anti-GMO advocates have created a strong negative association between GMOs and Monsanto. The controversy surrounding genetically modified organisms once caused Zambia to refuse a shipment of GM corn during a famine.

Although hundreds of scientific studies have proven that genetically modified foods are no more dangerous to eat than non-GM foods, polls show that anywhere from 1/3 to 1/2 of Americans wouldn’t drink GM orange juice.  Now, despite the consensus of consulting scientists that genetic modification is the only thing that can save the Florida orange, the fear of consumer rejection is holding Florida growers back from making the leap to commission a GM orange.

Dr. Dawson at the University of Florida recently succeeded in temporarily genetically modifying orange trees using grafting to fight off the citrus greening bacteria. This will hopefully tide the industry over until a permanent solution is established. And, with any luck, the misinformation surrounding genetic modification will be remedied.


Florida Orange Grove

Adventures in the Florida Keys

With my last bite of key lime pie in tow, I bid adieu (more like au revoir) to the Florida Keys. It’s been real and I liked it down here more than I had anticipated. I’ll definitely be coming back and in the meantime, I’ll miss the pink sea bungalows, the fried fish sandwiches, and the extraordinary variety of people.

The Turtle Hospital and the Dolphin Research Center were great, but the highlight of the trip was definitely the diving. I learned how to dive last summer in San Salvador. I even completed my advanced open water certification, but unfortunately, this didn’t stop me from knocking my regulator out of my mouth 90 feet below.

Let me back up. As I mentioned in my last post, we were scheduled to embark on a diving trip to Roatán, when the night before our scheduled departure, my younger brother discovered a travel warning for the whole of Honduras on the State Department website. Although issued in 2012, it had not been revoked and was troubling, so we decided to keep our flight to Miami and come to the Keys instead.

To keep with our prior plan to SCUBA, my mom and I, the only certified divers in the family, called the Southpoint Dive shop in Key West. Our first two dives were at a shallow reef and were pretty uneventful—and by that I mean pretty, but at 30 feet, not very exciting.

Our dive guide, a twenty something guy with light blonde dreadlocks and a barracuda tattoo, encouraged us to dive the Vandenberg the following morning. Coincidentally (or not), my mom had just finished reading about the wreck on a list of the best dives in America. Needless to say, we signed up.

My mom has a longer dive history than I, and she has dived several wrecks over the years, but the Vandenberg was to be my first. It was my initial idea to go, but I was nervous. My lingering childhood fear of drowning didn’t mesh well with the idea of a cavernous, dark, metal maze where it’s so easy to get lost.

The dive was great, and despite the youth of this up-and-coming artificial reef (the Vandenberg was sunk four years ago), there was already a lot of growth and many fish and rays calling the ship home. Side note: we did unfortunately see a couple of lionfish, an unwelcome and invasive ecosystem-disrupter.

Toward the middle of the dive, I lost my regulator. I froze for a second then reached out, grabbed it, shoved it back in my mouth, purged it, and breathed in the wonderful air. Although not as glamorous a dive mishap as, say, a shark attack or getting lost in a wreck, I get the shivers when I think about it because if I had panicked, the dive could have turned into a disaster.

Back on board the boat during our dry interval, I chatted up the captain, a man fitted with a single emerald earing, before our second 17-minute dive. He was a cool guy. I asked him about how many dives he’d been on. “I’d say over 10,000. I love my job. I love my office,” he replied, gesturing to the sea.

It was just dusk when we got back to port. The captain closed with the following: “thanks for cheating death with us today.”

Diver on the Vandenberg

Diver on the Vandenberg

Fish Around the Vandenberg

Fish Around the Vandenberg

Florida Keys Turtle Hospital and Dolphin Research Center

This week, my family and I flew to the Keys after a scary sounding travel warning prompted the cancellation of our dive trip to Roatan, Honduras.

Yesterday, we visited the Turtle Hospital in Marathon. Currently home to 36 sea turtles, including an ultra-rare Kemp’s Ridley, the hospital is equipped to rescue, provide veterinary care for, and hopefully release the injured turtles that are called in by local, as well as visiting, good samaritans.

Recently, the center opened its doors to the public through a highly successful education program. Visitors learn the history of the hospital, which coincidentally was opened in 1986 by Richie, a good friend of my dive boat captain today, and get to see the current patients.

Medical care is donated by a generous local vet, renowned for his expertise in sea turtle care. The high-tech equipment found in the hospital was also donated by various hospitals and research centers. The permanent patients, those who are so sick or injured that they will never be able to be released, reside in the now salt water pool, formerly of the Hidden Harbor motel. The most common ailments facing the sea turtle patients are ingestion of trash, boat strikes, and the fibropapilloma virus, which causes tumors.

All volunteer and employees of the hospital cite the release of the sea turtles back into the ocean as the best part of their job. Due to different habitat ranges, different species of sea turtles are released at different locations around the Keys or at the Dry Tortugas. Since its opening, the Turtle Hospital has released over 1000 turtles.


Juvenile Green Sea Turtle with Rehab Weights


Hawksbill Sea Turtle

The nearby Dolphin Research Center, also a non-profit, is home to quite a few bottlenose dolphins, several descended from the famous dolphin Flipper. The center not only runs various educational programs with the in-house dolphins, but also helps rescue and rehabilitate stranded or injured whales, dolphins, and manatees.

Research is an important and ongoing part of the DRC. Scientists from around the world have come to view these dolphins in such a unique capacity. For a study on calf social development, the DRC served as the perfect place for research because the mother-calf relationship is so difficult to view in the wild.

Pandora at Dolphin Research Center

Pandora at Dolphin Research Center