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River Museum first institution outside of Florida to participate in AZA-Florida Reef Tract Rescue Project to save threatened corals

Dubuque, Iowa – The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium has expanded the institution’s work with threatened species through the addition of corals in partnership with the Florida Reef Tract Rescue Project.

For the first time, Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) professionals and resources have been sought out to help State and Federal agencies to help manage and respond to a marine environmental crisis. The River Museum is the first institution outside of Florida to receive corals as part of the project, which will include 64 AZA member institutions from 21 states and Canada.

The Florida Reef Tract (FRT) is the largest barrier reef in the continental United States, and the third largest barrier reef in the world. Roughly two-thirds of the Florida Reef Tract lies within Biscayne National Park and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. It is home to more than 45 species of stony corals and 35 species of octocorals, and the reef is a critical habitat for sport fish species and commercially important fisheries.

In 2014, an unidentified coral tissue loss disease was first observed in Miami-Dade County and quickly spread throughout the northern areas of the FRT. The disease outbreak continued to slowly and persistently progress south of Miami through the Upper and Middle Keys, reaching the Lower Keys by April 2018. This is an unprecedented outbreak, with disease lesions reported on more than 25 species. It is expected that in a very short time frame, one third of the coral species found in Florida will become ecologically extinct, leaving nothing more than a few relic corals dotting the FRT.

The situation on the FRT is an environmental crisis with significant ecological and economic impacts. The AZA-Florida Reef Tract Rescue Project (AZA-FRTRP) is one part of a multi-pronged solution led by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, National Marine Fisheries Service, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The AZA-FRTRP primary goals are to prevent ecological extinction along the FRT for the most susceptible species, and maintain as much genetic diversity as possible for approximately 25 priority species in preparation for restoration or future ecological disturbances.

“Warming ocean temperatures, plastic and chemical pollution, ocean acidification, and other stressors are causing havoc with natural systems like coral reefs,” said Andy Allison, Director of Living Collections. “We at the NMRMA feel it is important for all of us to remember that even places that are thousands of miles away are impacted by the actions of people in Dubuque, Iowa. When our partners asked for help to save these corals, we saw this as a great opportunity to perform real conservation work and use these corals as examples to show people what they can do to help coral reefs, such as reducing energy use, carpooling, recycling, and eliminating single-use plastics for starters.”

The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium staff have been preparing for the coral arrival for the last several months, and the corals are being housed off exhibit where they can be closely monitored and studied as part of the FRTRP. Those interested in financially supporting the project at the River Museum should contact Vicky Sutter, Senior Manager of Development, at 563-557-9545 x276.

About National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium Conservation Programs
The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, operated by the Dubuque County Historical Society, is dedicated to inspiring stewardship by creating educational experiences where history and rivers come alive. As part of its mission, the River Museum has become involved with numerous conservation efforts that support threatened and endangered species, including Snuffbox Mussels, Wyoming Toads, Laotian Newts, and now corals. For more information, visit rivermuseum.com.

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