ORLANDO, Fla., Sept. 13 (UPI) -- Aquariums around the United States are helping to preserve coral species from the Florida Reef, saving them from a deadly disease that is killing major portions of the undersea ecosystem.
At stake is the survival of species on the third-longest barrier reef in the world, which the U.S. Geological Survey says not only is dying, but also eroding. Scientists in 2014 found a new affliction, stony coral tissue loss disease, was ravaging the reef.
The 200-mile-long barrier helps protect Florida and the Keys from waves at a time when climate change is believed to be causing more frequent and more severe hurricanes. The federal government estimates the reef's value at $8.5 billion in terms of shoreline protection, tourism and fishing impact.
About 100 Florida coral colonies are now living in a display tank at Moody Gardens aquarium in Galveston, Texas, one of a dozen new homes for the invertebrate animal colonies. At first, it was envisioned that aquariums in Florida would take the corals, but that grew quickly this year to include a dozen others around the nation.
Greg Whittaker, animal husbandry manager at Moody Gardens, said visitors have had a very positive reaction to the effort.
"It's good to have this here, visible for the public," Whitaker said. "I think the death of these corals is not very well known. It's good to have conservation right in front of people."
Other aquariums that have Florida corals include the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa; Adventure Aquarium in Camden, N.J.; and Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium in Omaha, Neb.
Many of the coral rescues started out at Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science of the University of Miami. It already has seen a string of successes -- capturing the live corals, growing them in captivity and most recently, seeing the coral spawn so that reproduction is assured off the reef.
Corals on the Florida Reef already were at risk from coral bleaching, which can be fatal and is thought to be caused partly by warming waters. Starting in 2014, however, a rapid die-off began from the new threat.
The International Coral Reef Initiative said the disease has affected 20 of 45 coral species that build reefs off the Florida coast and in the Caribbean. It said that more than half of the Florida Reef has been affected -- more than 96,000 acres since 2014.
According to researchers at the Rosenstiel School, the disease has traveled all the way to the northern end of the reef and south to the Florida Keys. Only the farthest part of the reef around Dry Tortugas National Park and Marquesas Keys have escaped so far, and those areas are expected to be affected soon.
"Recently, we have been suffering from a really bad outbreak of coral disease," said Andrew Baker, associate professor of marine biology and fisheries at the Rosenstiel School.
"Until we understand the disease and find a cure, we're trying to protect the genetic diversity of the corals by rescuing them and growing them in captivity. Someday, we may be able to repopulate the reef with those corals."
The school has retrieved over 700 coral colonies, including 400 in July that were chiseled off the reef around the Dry Tortugas. The corals rescued earlier spawned in late August in tanks in Miami, which Baker said was a welcome sign that scientists were proceeding correctly. The school collects fertilized eggs after spawning and attempts to grow new colonies.
The first few hundred coral samples were sent to a network of care providers at public zoos and aquariums, who will look after them for the foreseeable future.
Despite the gloomy outlook, the reef still looks beautiful to divers at South Florida Diving Headquarters, a privately owned diving school and shop in Pompano Beach, Fla. That's about 35 miles north from where the disease started in the Miami area.
"During bleaching events, it gets really bad," said Jeff Torode, owner of the shop, who has visited the reef several times this summer. "But the farther north you get, the less effect we see. There's still stony corals here. They're not all dead yet, but they will be if they don't figure out what's causing this."
Torode was until recently a member of the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force. He personally believes commercial fishing should be restricted in certain areas to allow reef life to flourish.