GALVESTON Brooke Carlson checks in at least once each shift on the nearly 100 refugee coral at Moody Gardens. Scientists rescued them in recent years from Florida, where a disease is swiftly killing colonies. Zoos and aquariums nationwide took them in. The coral are the hope for one day building back the reef.
The Florida coral in Galveston now live in three large, blue tanks. Carlson and the team make saltwater for them to live in, stir together refrigerated and frozen food to eat, and monitor how they respond to LED lights that mimic the sun. The process involves both caring for and learning about them; at least one species has never been in captivity before.
These animals didnt choose to be here, said Carlson, squeezing their liquid lunch into the tank with a turkey baster. As a keeper, my job is to give them what the ocean would, which is a very big task.
That so many coral were saved and so many facilities offered to look after them shows how important scientists felt the effort was. Coral worldwide already suffer from climate change. The disease in Florida, called stony coral tissue loss disease, affected almost half the stony coral species there, according to the state. More than 80 percent that got it died.
By the numbers
Facilities housing coral: 28
Colonies under care: 2,341
Percent at Moody Gardens: 4
Florida rescue sites: 188
Source: Coral Rescue - Coral Monitoring Dashboard
But the success story in saving some also gave way to further concern. Galveston researchers realized the disease might come closer to home. The Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary near Texas has some of the healthier coral that remain. The coral are deep in the Gulf of Mexico and roughly 100 miles off the coast, which might protect them, though it also makes them harder to help.
On HoustonChronicle.com: New Gulf coral protections prioritize oil and gas over science
Stony coral tissue loss disease spread quickly. People first identified it in 2014 in Florida. It went on to infect coral along the entire 360-mile Florida Coral Reef, which curls along the bottom tip of that state. Scientists hoped the disease wouldnt reach Dry Tortugas National Park at the westernmost end. It did. That sounded alarm bells at Flower Garden.
Officials with the sanctuary, which is like an underwater national park with protections for the marine life there, put together a plan for what to do if the disease arrives. Theyve prepared to monitor its spread; remove smaller, sick colonies with chisels; and treat larger colonies with antibiotic putty pressed on with gloved fingers.
The biologists hope never to have to pick which coral colonies to save, but protecting all of them from the disease would be impossible.
It is spreading everywhere, said Michelle Johnston, a research biologist with the sanctuary. Were just highly concerned that the time is ticking.
A coral colony sits in the hospital tank in the Coral Rescue Lab at Moody Gardens Aquarium on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021 in Galveston .
Scientists arent sure what exactly causes the disease, or how it spreads. Sanctuary divers are trained to spot the telltale white lesions. Theyve also shared webinars on what to watch for with operators of the boat that often takes out tourists. Divers are asked to disinfect their gear. Mariners are supposed to be careful with how they replace ballast water, which is held within ships to stabilize them, as it may be a source of the spread.
Others are also getting involved: Sanctuary staff are collaborating with a North Carolina scientist whos working on an alternative treatment for the disease. And researchers are planning to look at which Flower Garden coral may be susceptible and whether they can help repopulate the Florida reefs if they remain healthy.
Moody Gardens may take in Flower Garden coral, too. For the Florida effort, researchers prioritized 20 species that were most susceptible. They hoped to save 200 of each species. Johnston cautioned that nothing had been finalized with Moody Gardens, and they would start small. They need funds and the ability to get offshore without significant COVID-19 restrictions. The aquarium would need a separate space for them.
Moody Gardens sprawling Galveston Island location includes a hotel, golf course and convention center. It also has the iconic pyramid-shaped aquarium, where this work is being done. The facility spent some $31,500 to transform an underwater photo gallery there into a coral rescue lab for the Florida animals. The first colonies arrived in 2019 on a truck, packed in Styrofoam boxes in bags of water. Rescued Florida coral also live at the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi and at the Fort Worth Zoo.
Carlson spends so much time staring at them, she sees their nuances. They are wrinkly and bumpy and feathery, various shades of brown, green, pink and purple. She knows which prefer to be directly under the light and which prefer the tank edges. She watches to see if they prey on each other or if they look sick. On a recent weekday, she patiently spent about 20 minutes feeding the coral in just one tank.
Sometimes Carlson plays Disney music while she feeds them, though coral dont have ears. She might talk to them too. That day the lab was quiet except for the hum of equipment. She wore socks with Pokemon fish and a belt with sharks. There is a lot of pressure to care well for these coral, she acknowledged. But that made the work rewarding. The water got more murky as she added food. The coral might get extra chunky treats for Thanksgiving. For now, they were getting full.
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