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Rescued Gulf of Mexico coral in a Galveston aquarium could help the species’ survival

By Emily Foxhall, The Texas Tribune

Rescued Gulf of Mexico coral in a Galveston aquarium could help the species’ survival” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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This story is part of the Pulitzer Center’s nationwide Connected Coastlines reporting initiative. For more information, go to pulitzercenter.org/connected-coastlines.

GALVESTON — Biologist Brooke Zurita lowered a turkey baster into a tank’s still water. She squeezed a stinky, chocolate-milk-colored mixture with plankton, algae and fish eggs over a piece of rescued, wild coral. The food swirled like a wispy cloud.

Zurita and her team at Moody Gardens feed 150 coral fragments from five species at least once a week, in addition to giving daily doses of amino acids.

The coral need to stay alive because they could change the future. Scientists took them from a federally-protected area some 100 miles off the Texas coast called Flower Garden Banks to create a reserve population in case the Gulf’s wild coral die.

Threats against coral are mounting. Climate change is warming seawater, increasing ocean acidification and feeding stronger storms. Coral diseases are spreading. Invasive species are pressuring the ecosystem.

A new report found that by 2040 Flower Garden coral could bleach, meaning they expel the symbiotic algae that give them color and nourishment, and start to die rather than recover.

A coral colony rests in the culture tray at Moody Gardens Aquarium's Coral Rescue Lab on Friday, Feb. 9, 2024, in Galveston, Texas.
Coral, taken from the Gulf of Mexico, rest in a tank at Moody Gardens Aquarium’s Coral Rescue Lab in Galveston. Credit: Hope Mora for The Texas Tribune

Zurita, 29, refilled her turkey baster from a pitcher. She could see the mouths of a fluorescent yellow colony opening up to eat. New tissue grew around some coral edges.

The rescue effort is one way scientists can act in the face of a big problem, says Michelle Johnston, the Flower Garden sanctuary’s superintendent. Biologists alone can’t stop climate change, but they don’t want to stand idle, especially not Johnston, who has loved the ocean since she took childhood trips to SeaWorld in Ohio. She begged her mom for a pet dolphin and still wears a necklace with a dolphin charm.

What scientists can do is organize trips so experienced hunters can try to spear invasive lionfish, keep buoys in place near the coral reefs so ships don’t drop anchors on them and monitor the reefs’ health.

And they can maintain and grow the coral collection, which Moody Gardens houses and pays for using both its own money and federal grants.

Coral genetic banking is happening around the world, including in Puerto Rico and Australia. Some 25 facilities now house 2,283 Florida coral rescued from 172 sites after disease spread throughout that state’s reef.

In Texas, scientists hope to study which types of coral are most resistant to heat and disease. They might breed the strongest ones and plant them in the sanctuary to test how they grow.

Johnston has applied for a $13 million federal grant to expand the Moody Gardens work and house more coral at Texas A&M Galveston and NOAA’s campus in Galveston.

“We have less than 20 years to figure something out to manage differently, to bank more corals,” Johnston said, adding, “We have to do something.”

Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary Superintendent Michelle Johnston is pictured at Galveston Beach on Friday, Feb. 9, 2024, in Galveston, Texas. Johnston specializes in coral reef ecology and invasive species management.
Michelle Johnston, the Flower Garden sanctuary’s superintendent, at a beach in Galveston. Johnston specializes in coral reef ecology and invasive species management. Credit: Hope Mora for The Texas Tribune

“Putting bubble gum on a crack in a dam”

The tank water grew murky as Zurita kept squeezing food above each coral. Her hand used to cramp when she fed them, distributing the mixture here and there in the tank. It doesn’t anymore because she’s been doing this for years.

The inspiration for rescuing coral from the wild grew out of an emergency. Scientists saw the deadly Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease take hold a decade ago in Florida reefs that stretch around the state’s southern and eastern coasts. By 2019, panicked scientists pleaded with facilities across the country to take in coral from their damaged reefs as the disease spread.

Beth Firchau, coordinator of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Florida Reef Tract Rescue Project, called the requests for help a “remarkable Hail Mary.” Numerous facilities made room, including the Texas State Aquarium, the Fort Worth Zoo and Moody Gardens, which transformed an art gallery into the lab where Zurita now works.

An image of a rainbow-colored coral decorated Zurita’s black sweatshirt. Her curly hair was pulled into a low, side ponytail. Tattoos depicting four life stages of jellyfish ran down her right forearm.

Zurita, too, loved the ocean as a kid who spent much of her childhood in Central Texas. She felt humbled by its vastness. Animal Planet was her favorite TV channel. When her parents let her buy a book, she picked an animal encyclopedia.

From Florida, Moody Gardens took around 100 coral representing 13 species that weren’t typically held in captivity. Zurita got to know them as she cared for them, mixing their artificial seawater and cleaning around them with tweezers.

Zurita remembers the week that she was put in charge of the coral lab. She got a big scare because one coral in her care suddenly bleached. She coaxed the coral back to health.

Rowdy children now pressed their faces against the glass to see Zurita work, then ran along.

What started as a three-year ask for banking Florida coral grew into a long-term project. The ecosystem threats weren’t disappearing. Scientists in some facilities started propagating the coral to go back to the reef.

“Our work is great,” Firchau said, “but unless we are addressing … those conditions that are creating this immune response, this distress in our reefs, we’re basically putting bubble gum on a crack in a dam.”

Moody Gardens General Curator Greg Whittaker in 2022 assessed what his staff could do. They lacked time, space and equipment to spawn the coral. So he planned to send the coral back to Florida to spawn and take in baby ones to grow. He thought they might also start collecting Flower Garden coral, knowing that the disease that was ravaging Florida’s coral could spread closer to Texas.

A scare came fast. That fall, lesions appeared on Flower Garden coral. Scientists feared the worst: Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease. They told Whittaker they wanted to act, so Moody Gardens readied a tank that previously held stingray pups. Divers brought them 14 large coral colonies that they pried from the Gulf banks.

Luckily, the disease — which scientists are still trying to positively identify — spread more slowly than expected.

Animal husbandry manager Greg Whittaker stands beside coral water tables at Moody Gardens Coral Rescue Lab on Friday, Feb. 9, 2024, in Galveston, Texas. "Our shift to housing Flower Gardens Marine Sanctuary corals from the Florida reef project enables us to engage more intimately with a nearby reef system," said Whittaker. "We have corals here to regularly educate our guests about issues and collaborate directly with the research community to identify problems and solutions."
Moody Gardens General Curator Greg Whittaker stands beside tanks at Moody Gardens Coral Rescue Lab. Credit: Hope Mora for The Texas Tribune

Months later, in April, the Florida coral left in shipping containers for Hobby Airport, bound for SeaWorld Orlando. They had grown from the size of softballs to the size of frisbees.

Learning to care for Flower Garden coral

Zurita worked through how to care for the Flower Garden coral. Some were better eaters than others. They preferred bluer light than the Florida coral because they’d come from deeper in the ocean.

Sanctuary staff, advisors and researchers meanwhile worked away at an assessment of how climate change could impact the sanctuary. The idea was to identify which parts of national marine sanctuaries are most vulnerable to climate change and why in order to help managers figure out how to make them more resilient, said Zachary Cannizzo, climate coordinator for the sanctuaries.

Climate change packed a “one-two-punch” following the disease that damaged the Florida reef, said Lisa Gregg, program and policy coordinator with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commision. Last summer, months of hotter-than-usual ocean temperatures caused the worst coral bleaching ever recorded there.

Senior biologist Brooke Zurita observes coral's response to feeding.
Zurita observes coral’s response to feeding. Her forearm tattoos depict four life stages of jellyfish. Credit: Hope Mora for The Texas Tribune

In Texas, Flower Garden has generally been considered relatively safe from climate impacts because it’s in deep water, but the assessment work showed that even that protection won’t last as climate change continues to alter the ecosystem.

In addition to damage from warmer water, stronger hurricanes could topple or smother the coral with sediment. Carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that human activities emit in vast quantities, could continue to enter seawater, cause ocean acidification and make it harder for coral to grow.

Zurita finished feeding the rescued coral in about 25 minutes. The threat of climate change can feel bleak, she said. Talking with kids at the museum and maybe inspiring them to change a habit helped.

“It’s what we can do now,” Zurita said. “We can protect these corals, we can control the environment, we have enough of the genetic profile of the reef … If we have this protection, this backup plan, it allows us to have opportunities in the future for more restoration.”


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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/02/15/texas-gulf-coral-rescue-climate-change/.

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