Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory: New hope for damaged coral reefs

Working with partners in Tampa, Sarasota and the Florida Keys, researchers at UF’s Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory in Ruskin are learning how to cultivate coral on land.
director of Univ of Fla Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory in Ruskin, Florida

Craig Watson, director of UF's Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory in Ruskin, shows one of the coral fragments grown in the facility's outdoor greenhouses. Photo courtesy of IFAS

Florida’s coral reefs have taken a beating over the years. Pollution, climate change, even shipwrecks — all are having a detrimental effect on Florida’s coral reefs, which are an important part of the undersea environment.

It takes centuries for coral to grow, making it difficult for a natural reef to recover from damage. But Florida’s reefs are getting a boost thanks to an experimental program taking place at the University of Florida’s Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory in Ruskin.

Working with partners at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, among others, UF researchers are growing coral in the laboratory and transplanting it to existing reefs to see whether it can flourish in the wild.

“The dream is that corals rescued from human impact or coastal construction projects be used to help restore reefs,” Lauri MacLaughlin, a resource manager with the marine sanctuary, said in 2007, roughly three years into the project.


Corals are tiny invertebrate animals that resemble sea anemones. Dwelling in colonies, they produce a skeleton-like structure composed mostly of calcium carbonate; only the outermost portions are alive. Though corals feed by capturing minute organisms, they co-exist with algae that provide additional food and give the coral color.

The UF project involves seven coral species commonly found in Florida, the only state in the continental United States with extensive reefs near its coasts, said Craig Watson, director of the Ruskin lab. Overall, the state is home to more than 100 coral species. Coral growth is estimated to range from one foot to 16 feet every 1,000 years.

With government permission, researchers were able to harvest small coral samples and create “farm” environments at UF’s Ruskin lab, Mote Marine Laboratory and the Florida Aquarium, which is leading the project. In 2006, almost 160 cookie-sized coral fragments were returned to Key West to try to repair a reef damaged in 1993 when a freighter ran aground in a storm.

Research on coral propagation and restoration is continuing, but its results so far earned the project’s collaborators the Coastal America Partnership Award in 2007.

Adapted from UF News

Learn More

Florida — mostly the Tampa Bay region — is home to a large portion of the nation’s $47.2 million tropical fish industry, which is protected and enhanced by UF’s Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory in Ruskin. Learn more about the lab, which is part of the School of Forest Resources and Conservation Program in Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, on its website.


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