Nearly 1,600 river miles separate Eastern Iowa from the sandy shores of the Gulf of Mexico, yet that same distance also connects the Gulf to Florida corals’ hope for survival.
A disease devasting corals in the Florida Reef Tract was first observed off the shores of southeast Florida in 2014. Since then, the disease has quickly spread to coral colonies in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Belize, and even Jamaica. The severity of the disease, known as stony coral tissue loss, has not lessened over the years. Once infected with the disease, corals face a 90% mortality rate.
Coral reefs are estimated to support 25 percent of all marine life, and the rapid decline of these corals led to a call for action to protect these ecosystems from completely crumbling was initiated by a handful of Florida’s conservation leaders in partnership with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).
On April 2, 2019, aquarists at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium (NMRMA) in Dubuque became the first caretakers outside the state of Florida to house and protect corals as part of the AZA Florida Reef Tract Rescue Project (FRTRP). On this date, boxes containing a variety of Florida coral species and their inhabitants arrived at the NMRMA as refugees.
“We are providing a temporary safe environment for these corals to flourish and grow. We have faith that our care will prepare them for a strong return to the reef, so they can thrive and rebuild the damage caused by stony coral tissue loss,” expresses Marisa Foster, Saltwater Aquarist II at the NMRMA.
The corals are doing well, and after nearly two years, Foster continues to note unexpected life growing within and among the corals. “It appears they brought part of their ecosystem with them. It is not unusual for us to discover creatures that have gone unnoticed. Many factors play into this. Some creatures are active during hours we are not around, or the creatures simply have just grown to a notable size. The corals are doing what they do best, providing a home and a habitat.”
Foster also highlights two petite rock-like figures that may mark a promising beginning of a comeback story, “A short time ago, we determined that a couple of our matured corals spawned or reproduced before coming to us, because now we have two healthy, growing baby corals.”
This little ecosystem housed in Dubuque, Iowa is a glimpse of FRTRP’s hope for the future of coral species. A future in which these corals are returned to the reef to rebuild, spawn, grow, and support a thriving ecosystem of marine life.
Just as NMRMA is supporting efforts to save our corals, so too can the citizens of Iowa. “Iowa’s impact starts with consumption and pollution. Pollutants in any habitat cause stress to animals, lowering their immune response and creating greater susceptibility to illness and disease. By reducing, reusing, and recycling single-use plastics; purchasing sustainably sourced seafood; and keeping chemicals and pollution from entering our rivers, we can all protect the habitats and health of our world’s aquatic wildlife,” encourages Foster.