As much as $375 billion of the world’s annual economy can be attributed to a tiny marine animal that takes up less than 1 percent of the Earth’s surface.
Coral reefs, made of colonies of invertebrates called polyps and their economic impact is only one reason people such as Pete Mohan, animal curator for the Akron Zoo, is helping prevent their destruction.
Hurricanes, pollution, diseases and global climate change contribute to the decimation of the coral reef that draws millions of visitors to the Florida Keys each year for diving, snorkeling, boating and fishing.
Recreation-based businesses, tourism and fisheries depend on healthy coral reefs for their existence. The National Marine Fisheries Service estimates the commercial value of U.S. fisheries from coral reefs is more than $100 million.
“When I was diving in the 1970s, I would go down with my friends and we would dive over reefs the size of football fields or larger. You go back there now, there’s nothing but a few little holdouts in the Florida Keys,” said Mohan.
In August, Mohan and 14 biologists from North America, all from member organizations of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, spent a week in Key Largo with the Coral Restoration Foundation propagating critically endangered staghorn and elkhorn coral. The foundation is growing coral colonies in an underwater nursery made of plastic pipe planted 35 feet below the surface of the water about 30 miles off the Florida coast. The coral colonies are anchored to the plastic structures allowing them time to reach maturity.
Biologists have only a small window each year to harvest bundles of the coral, and that’s not always a sure bet, said Mohan.
“They spawn three to four days after a full moon in August every year, except when they don’t do that and do something else,” he added.
The goal of the project is to collect the bundles in man-made nets placed around the coral colonies. Shortly after they are collected, the bundles burst apart, releasing the eggs and sperm that have to be collected and paired with eggs and sperm from a different colony.
It’s the only way to preserve diversity in a diminishing underwater landscape where broken pieces of coral will continue to grow, but can’t reproduce. Mixing colonies of different genetic makeup is the only way to provide sustainable coral growth.
In the seven days Mohan worked with the foundation, biologists and volunteers harvested 275,000 fertilized eggs at its onshore lab in the small town of Tavernier.
Each reproducing colony that was harvested was placed in a 30 gallon plastic container filled with sea water that had to be hauled by hand overland to the lab, said Mohan. It was a back-breaking job, he said.
While the Akron Zoo is home to several species of coral in its Journey to the Reef exhibit, the endangered corals are not among them.
“Since we have a coral reef exhibit, we are showing our commitment to coral conservation by participating in this project,” Mohan said.
Mohan, who came to the Akron Zoo eight years ago after serving as the aquarium curator at Sea World in Aurora for 22 years, has a master’s degree in marine biology and was instrumental in bringing two of the most popular exhibits at the zoo: Jellies: Rhythm in the Blue and the Journey to the Reef exhibit that replaced it in the Komodo Kingdom Education Center in 2012.
“Before Pete came on board, we hadn’t very many aquatic animals at all. We had no reef, no jellies. It’s all since he’s come on board,” said David Barnhardt, director of marketing and guest services.
“We kept hearing from our visitors that they would like to see that type of animal here and with Pete’s expertise, we were able to make it happen,” Barnhardt said.
Mohan was selected for the program along with volunteers from the Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Conn., Sea World of Florida and Disney’s Living Seas at Epcot Center in Orlando.
“The annual project goes a little over two weeks each year. This was probably the most successful year of the project, so far,” said Mohan.
Although Ohioans live far from the fragile coral reefs, they should remember what they put down the drain affects sea life, Mohan said.
“All fresh water ends up in the ocean,” he said.
To learn more about the Coral Restoration Project, visit www.coralrestoration.org.
Kathy Antoniotti can be reached at 330-996-3565 or email@example.com.