The University of Miami’s underwater coral nurseries are located offshore of Elliot Key located in Biscayne National Park near Miami, Florida and Key Biscayne, Florida. These nurseries were built using two types of nursery structures, cinderblock platforms and coral “trees.” Small pieces or fragments (up to 30 cm or 11 inches total length) are collected from healthy, wild (parent) staghorn colonies. The collection of small fragments does not harm the parent colony and coral branches heal and regrow within 6 months after collection. Fragments are transported by boat to the nursery where they are attached to the cinderblock platforms with underwater epoxy or to the coral “trees” with small plastic cable ties. Some colonies can grow up to 3 meters a year resulting in lots of healthy coral in the nursery. Over time, nursery colonies are fragmented or cut into smaller pieces to create new colonies and thus increase the number of corals available to use for restoration. While in the nursery, corals are measured using a ruler to determine the total linear extension of each individual corals. This data provides researchers with specific information about genetic differences between corals, growth rates, branching patterns, and how each coral responds to environmental stimuli such as temperature, predation, or currents. In addition to measurements, nursery platforms are cleaned using a wire brushes to remove encrusting organisms such as macroalgae, fire coral, hydroids and sponges which compete with corals for space and may reduce growth rates.
Once the corals have grown and are ready for outplanting, small colonies are collected from the nursery while leaving other colonies to continue growing for future outplanting. Colonies are carefully transported to the restoration site via boat. Restoration sites are chosen based on specific characteristics such as water quality, absence of predators, and the current or historical presence of existing staghorn colonies. Using nails hammered into the reef, colonies are secured with underwater epoxy and small cable ties. Within 3 months, the corals will attach themselves onto the reef by growing healthy tissue over the nails, cable ties and onto the reef substrate thus becoming a “natural” part of the reef community. Additionally, coral predators, such as corallivorous snails and fireworms, are removed from the restoration site to reduce stress while the corals are acclimating to their new environment.
Using the framework of Dr. Neil Hammerschlag’s Shark Citizen Science Program, participants of the Rescue a Reef program will have the opportunity to join researchers from the Benthic Ecology Lab at UM RSMAS in reef restoration excursions. These excursions will include SCUBA diving or snorkeling at our established coral nurseries, conducting basic nursery maintenance (i.e., scrubbing away macroalgae and fouling organisms from nursery platforms with wire brushes, fragmenting corals with pliers to create new nursery colonies, and attaching fragments to nursery platforms and PVC coral “trees”), collecting corals for transplantation, and assisting in outplanting nursery corals at local reef sites as part of ongoing coral restoration activities. In addition, participants will have access to an online Virtual Expedition which will provide more information about the coral nursery and restoration process.