Could research in Keys give coral the 2nd chance it needs?

KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) — A strange scene plays out in the depths below the clear azure water of Key West’s Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park on a recent morning, one that doesn’t quite fit with the serene ambiance of the area.

About a quarter-mile offshore, two Mote Marine Laboratory scientists dive into the water, holding trays with tiny pieces of coral mounted on a ceramic base. They delicately grasp each circular piece, resembling something one might see at a dinner party — a mini-quiche or canape — and place them gingerly into the rock, nearly 15 feet below the surface.

Soon, scientists expect the 320 pieces of coral planted in late July will grow and fuse into full-size mountain star coral, which will spawn and produce coral of its own. The nearly 6,000 coral fragments planted last year in an underwater landscape mere meters from this one have already begun what David Vaughan, executive director of Mote’s newly completed Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research and Restoration, calls “re-skinning.” It will take them two to three years to fully come together, but Vaughan said their progress is a positive indicator for the 7,000 corals they planted in another section this year.

“This is the good news — that’s what’s different,” Vaughan said. “This is now a turnaround that we can make a difference growing corals. But it’s not over.”

Corals have been under attack in the world’s oceans for some time. In the 1970s, Vaughan said, the Florida Keys lost 20 percent of their corals through bleaching, a process in which changes in conditions such as temperature can stress and kill them, turning them white and causing the algae inside them to leave. The Florida Keys have experienced bleaching in 12 of the last 14 years, he adds, and in 2005, half of the coral reefs in the Caribbean were lost to a bleaching event.

Vaughan grows frustrated when he hears from climate-change deniers who contest the destruction of coral and its importance.

“They say it’s just a natural change, that it goes up and down, and I say yes,” Vaughan said. “But it may have taken 150,000 years to gain this half degree, and we just gained it in 20 years. The corals can’t run away fast.”

To those who say “So what?” to coral, Vaughan has a message. Coral reefs are responsible for 50 percent of the world’s fisheries, 77,000 jobs and a $7 billion industry. Picturing the world without coral reefs is not pretty.

Citizen volunteers

That’s why Mote has enlisted citizen volunteers for the second summer to help with coral restoration in the state park. Scientists like Vaughan hope the project will educate the public about Mote’s work and the importance of preserving reefs.

In Sarasota, Mote is best known for its projects championing marine wildlife such as sea turtles and manatees or its work with environmental phenomena, red tide in particular. But its coral research, which began as a small center on Summerland Key known as the Tropical Research Laboratory, has slowly become an international force in the coral world. The only problem is that it lacks the benefit of Mote’s proximity, so this program is a way to raise awareness.

“The word gets out there, and it gives people a feeling that they’re contributing to the solution, especially with something as big as climate change, where so many people feel like they’re helpless,” Vaughan said. “Here, I think people are feeling some fulfillment in being involved and actively planting corals.”

On site, volunteers were firsthand participants in the research process. They bent over tanks filled with coral fragments grown in the lab, pulling at the ceramic bottoms with pliers and ensuring that different coral genotypes were kept separate. A white tent was pitched on the beach, where at least one volunteer engaged with passersby and discussed the research. Out at sea, other volunteers snorkeled to the scientists, hauling the baskets of coral and offering them equipment.

Although the group is limited to five volunteers each day, many ask to stay for a second round. Constantine Hanzivasilis, 48, traveled from Sarasota to participate in the project after he saw a coral restoration video on Facebook.

A real estate agent, Hanzivasilis had never been to the Keys and has an interest in conservation.

“Some people who aren’t too into it were asking me, ‘Are you coming to spear lobsters?’” He laughed. “No.”

Hanzivasilis grew up in the Chicago area by Lake Michigan, but was traumatized by watching “Jaws” at 7 years old. When swimming in the lake, he would often mistake seaweed for a sea creature and jump out of the water. Even the Sarasota beaches proved daunting for him.

But on this morning, maybe it was the science that changed things. Hanzivasilis dove in the water multiple times and snorkeled out to the scientists, seemingly without a care.

“Going that deep, I would never swim out to the buoys, never in my life, not even in Lake Michigan,” Hanzivasilis said. “It’s totally irrational, I know, but maybe it was the fact that I was on a mission.”

Dorothy Quigley, 71, grew up in the Keys, where the coral reef was a big part of daily life. She called the effects of bleaching a “tragedy,” but said that explaining the scientists’ work to beachgoers helped her feel like she was giving back.

“I loved what Mote is doing,” Quigley said. “I just wanted to be a part of it.”

Years of testing

Even though Vaughan has told his “eureka mistake” story a million times, he seems infused with renewed vigor each time he speaks to a new audience.

After years of farming clams, oysters, shrimp, fish and other marine species in a lab, which later became a for-profit business, Vaughan turned his eye to coral after an inspiring encounter with Jacques Cousteau’s grandchildren.

But three years of working with elkhorn coral only led to disappointment. It took that amount of time to simply get his lab-grown coral to grow the horns characteristic of that species.

One day, Vaughan was cleaning and adjusting the coral tanks when he heard a loud crash. A piece of coral had broken and left behind three polyps. It felt like just another inconclusive moment.

“I said to myself, ‘these are toast.’ I had no hope for them at all,” Vaughan said. “Just a few weeks later, I checked on the broken coral and it had grown the size of tissue that had taken two years to grow.”

Like Archimedes in his fateful bath, Vaughan had stumbled upon an innovative solution. Break the coral up into tiny fragments, plant each of these close to each other and watch them grow until they touch and fuse as one.

The mistake continued into “science,” years of testing to prove that this wasn’t a one-time event. Now, Vaughan’s team can grow 26 types of coral species, including staghorn, brain and boulder corals.

Vaughan’s confidence and optimism in this process has led him to launch a lofty goal: plant 1 million corals by time he retires. By next year, Mote should be at somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000 corals planted. And if those corals begin to spawn, Vaughan’s goal could be more than achievable.

“It can be done in my lifetime,” Vaughan said. “That’s why I’m not afraid of the goal, because the scale can work; it’s just the space.”

‘Superhuman’ force

At the same time as Mote attempts to resuscitate the existing coral population, Vaughan’s team also wants to know what species are best suited for the impending high temperatures and more acidic conditions that come with climate change.

To test that, the team has launched a 25-week experiment with different species of coral in high temperature and low pH conditions, based on future predictions from the International Council of Climate Change. Mote’s scientists hope that this data will help them determine which coral is next in line to become extinct and which ones have a better chance at survival.

It’s anxiety-producing work, to say the least. And yet, so far, the news hasn’t been all negative.

“I thought I was going to be the one bearing bad news, like: Which species are going to be gone tomorrow?” Vaughan said, looking at the rows of long, rectangular tanks that make up one of the outdoor laboratories. “So far, we’ve got strains (of each species) that are going to make it.”

Eventually, Vaughan hopes to combine this data with his coral planting system to create something like a “superhuman” force of coral. Imagine adding the fastest-growing type of coral with one that can best withstand coming climate change and creating one species — not only restoring a population, but improving it for the future.

“We want to make coral that has a million chances of surviving,” Vaughan said.

While Mote’s research has clearly had an impact in the larger world outside of the Florida Keys, it does raise one question: Does Mote ever plan to segue this into a for-profit venture? After all, Vaughan’s previous enterprises have turned into large moneymakers and it could be a way to funnel money into a nonprofit organization largely dependent on donations and grant funding.

Vaughan says the idea is there.

“If we patented this, we’re not trying to start a new business,” Vaughan said. “But if somebody else wants to start a business using the technology that we developed, why not get a royalty from it?”

He sees a future in which biomedical companies could use this system as a way to select and target the best marine organisms, with compounds that could be used in pharmaceutical products. More concerning would be a future in which Mote’s technology could be patented by a group that did not have the idea and would restrict others from reproducing the technique.

Still, Vaughan is mum about the prospect of a final decision being made in the near future.

“We are still thinking about the potential of patents in order to help support our research, as well as to protect it, so that it’s not used by somebody else and patented and restricted,” he said.

With his shoulder-length hair and gleaming eyes, prone to jokes that will catch others off guard with their mirth, Vaughan seems both the least and most likely person to be the savior of coral reefs. He clearly takes work home with him, as he lives directly across the canal from Mote’s facility and “canoetes” (his portmanteau of “canoe” and “commute”) to work each day.

And yet his quiet but joyful nature gives way to a solemnity at certain moments. About five years ago, Vaughan found himself in a room of his friends who were also coral biologists.

“How do you guys handle this?” he asked them. “It’s all bad news, it’s not looking good, the stuff we see out there is crying, the people don’t even believe it’s happening, and we know too much.”

His friends and fellow scientists looked back at him with sad expressions on their faces. They said they were pondering career changes and lying awake at night wondering about the future. Vaughan came to deliver to them the “good news” of his coral planting method and, even now, he wants to end on a positive note.

But faced with the question of whether microfragmentation and coral planting could be a permanent solution to the threats coral reefs face, he’s unsure. He cites the looming problems of climate change, global warming and melting ice caps, and a future that feels uncertain.

“I think it will be in the next 20 years, maybe in the next 50 years, but if in 100 years it’s that curve they predict that does this,” he pauses, making a vigorous upward motion, referring to warming and climate problems. “I think all bets are off for corals.”

One more hesitation.

“And mankind.”


Information from: Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune,