The Florida Aquarium’s pioneering efforts to save coral reefs, which are dying at an alarming rate, is attracting a lot of news coverage, and rightly so.
But those reports, such as The Tampa Bay Times’ recent Paul Guzzo story on The Florida Aquarium working with Cuban scientists to create greenhouses for growing coral that can eventually be replanted, represent more than just scientific progress.
The Aquarium’s coral work is part of a broader strategy best expressed in its vision statement to “Protect and Restore the Blue Planet.” Those aren’t intended to be just feel-good words. The vision, developed by Board members and Aquarium staff during a retreat a few years ago, is intended to help direct decisions.
Nobody is forgetting about the business side of the enterprise. Its stated mission to “entertain, educate and inspire stewardship of our natural environment” takes aim at its immediate and pragmatic goals. But the larger vision is for The Florida Aquarium to play an aggressive role in protecting our imperilled oceans.
The Florida Aquarium’s Vice President of Conservation, Science and Research Margo McKnight said the challenge of that vision was how to translate it into action. That was accomplished by narrowing the focus to areas where the Aquarium staff had expertise and could have significant impact.
This led to the focus on staghorn coral, which has lost 90 percent of its original density. That means more than losing a beautiful underwater attraction for divers, particularly in the Florida Keys. As McKnight says, “Corals are responsible for at least 25 percent of the biodiversity in the ocean, and it may be as high as 40 percent.” Thus, saving the reefs also saves one of the key components of a healthy ocean.
The Aquarium team already has proved its expertise in coral research by becoming the first institution in the world to sexually reproduce staghorn coral in a lab. It is collaborating with other research institutions to reproduce healthy corals and revive their dwindling populations.
But corals are not the Aquarium’s only “Protect and Restore” goal. The staff also decided to make sea turtles and sand tiger sharks restoration priorities.Both are featured in the Aquarium and both are native to Florida waters, but more importantly, both face grave threats — from habitat destruction to overfishing.
McKnight says of the sand tiger shark, “The shark is an apex predator. You take the apex predator out of the ocean, and you are going to have a catastrophe. The biodiversity will plummet.”
She says the loss of predators allows the population explosion of algae eaters which then leads to the loss of food and habitat and, ultimately, to the decline of other species, including popular gamefish.
Yet there is much that is unknown about sand tiger sharks, including their breeding migration. Though the sand tiger shark is protected in the U.S., its numbers are declining. The Florida Aquarium is working with 14 other aquariums on a tagging program and also trying to get the sharks to reproduce in managed care.
The turtle, McKnight says, is an “umbrella” species; and because it is long lived, it is a great indicator of an ecosystem’s health. The Aquarium team is studying whether improving water quality in Tampa Bay will revive its turtle numbers. Its scientists also are engaged in rescue efforts and routinely nurse sick and injured sea turtles back to health so they can be released where they were found.
Of course, beyond the concentrated efforts on these troubled species, The Florida Aquarium seeks to protect and preserve the Blue Planet by transforming visitors, helping them appreciate and understand the ocean’s wonder and importance.
Looked at in that broader perspective, The Florida Aquarium’s aim to “Protect and Preserve the Blue Planet” is not solely about saving the oceans, but also about saving humanity, and its vision statement could not be more appropriate.