Aaron Gavin, a biologist in central Florida uses tiny pipettes for carefully feeding shrimp to over 700 corals in large saltwater tanks. They are lit by sunlight-mimicking lamps.
Scientists working here may be the last chance for the species to survive in America's continental waters.
Gavin and his team meticulously recreated coral reef habitat in waters off the southern tip, complete with artificial currents.
They want to ensure that the 18 coral species they care for do not suffer the same mysterious disease, SCTLD (stony coral tissues loss disease), as their wild counterparts.
The Atlantic Ocean floor is covered in large white patches of coral damage, which are now visible among the mangroves and schools of fish off Florida Keys.
It is the same situation all along Florida Reef Tract. The tract stretches 360 miles (580 km) from Dry Tortugas (the westernmost islands of the Florida Keys), to St Lucie, about 120 miles north-east of Miami.
Michelle Ashton (communications director at the Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida) stated that "It's heartbreaking" and that the most alarming thing about it was that most people don’t know it's even happening.
The Florida Coral Rescue Center's discoveries by Gavin and his colleagues could have a profound impact on the state's future marine ecosystems.
Justin Zimmerman, director of the lab in Orlando, explained that corals are being held safe and healthy under his care. The lab was established in 2020 and is managed and operated by SeaWorld, an aquatic theme park company.
Zimmerman stated that if they had been left in the wild, 90 percent would have died.
SCTLD, which can be very dangerous, was discovered near Miami in 2014. It has spread quickly, threatening half of all stony coral species. This is a keystone of marine biodiversity.
The cause of the disease is unknown.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission created the rescue lab in 2018. It is one of many projects that includes numerous public and private organizations.
Faced with the possibility of 20 or more of the 45 species hard corals in the area becoming extinct, the group devised an unprecedented plan to extract healthy corals and keep them alive in artificially-equipped aquariums.
Aston stated that corals in Orlando's aquariums are "looking at the future Florida Reef Tract" in the room. Their grandchildren will be the water that goes back to the sea."
Return to the sea
The rescue plan's first component has enabled wildlife officials to save almost 2,000 coral colonies. They are now housed at over 20 institutions across 14 states.
Researchers must then return corals to the sea. However, this operation will likely take place in the future as corals reproduce slowly.
Scientists are currently studying the genetics of the rescued animals to try to create new species that are more resistant to diseases and other threats like pollution and warming water temperatures.
These endeavors' success or failure could have enormous consequences for the region.
Coral reefs are made up of limestone skeletons and stony corals. They provide habitat for 25% of marine life.
The structures also act as natural barriers between land and ocean, decreasing the force of waves hitting the coast, especially during storms or hurricanes.
A decline in coral health could also mean a decrease in tourism revenue to Florida. One study found that Florida visitors who come to Florida to fish and dive along the reef earn US$8.5 billion annually.
Steve Campbell, a Key Largo resident, is concerned about the future. He sits next to the small boat that he captains and is currently anchored at the port.
He stated that the coral disease had already affected his business.
He said, "I've lived in the Florida Keys for over 20 years and I'm still out on the water every single day."
"Obviously, we live here. So we take people to the reef to enjoy the reef."
"So it's very important for us."