Halmos Researchers Demonstrate How Staghorn Coral Restoration Projects Show Promise in the Florida Keys

A new analysis of reef restoration projects in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary suggests they could play a key role in helping staghorn coral recover after decades of decline. Steven Miller, Ph.D., a research scientist at NSU’s Halmos College; and his former master’s student, Matt Ware, Ph.D. (‘12); worked with their colleagues to present these findings in the open-access journal PLOS ONE on May 6, 2020.

Once widespread in Caribbean reefs, staghorn coral populations have declined by over 90 percent since the 1970s. After the species was listed as Threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 2006, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) initiated a recovery plan. A central part of this plan is outplanting, in which corals are cultivated in an offshore nursery before being transplanted to restoration sites.

While outplanting efforts have been in place for many years, only recently has enough time passed to analyze their long-term potential. Now, Ware and colleagues have applied photographic monitoring and scuba diving  to assess 2,419 staghorn coral colonies outplanted to 20 different sites in the Florida Keys between 2007 and 2013 by the Coral Restoration Foundation.

The analysis revealed that survivorship – the percentage of colonies containing living tissue – was high for the first two years after outplanting, but declined in subsequent years. Survivorship among projects based on colony counts was highly variable, between 4% and 89% for seven projects with corals that survived at least five years. The researchers also used statistical modeling to predict future survivorship, finding that 0 to 10 percent of the colonies would survive seven years post-outplanting. This means that large numbers of colonies need to be outplanted to start, so ecologically relevant numbers survive longer-term. Coral growth rates were similar to the wild population.

The authors acknowledge some limitations of their analysis, including low or variable sample sizes among projects and the retrospective nature of their analyses that made it difficult to identify how different habitat types and reef locations affected survivorship

Still, the findings suggest that outplanting could help restore staghorn coral populations by protecting against local extinction and maintaining genetic diversity in the wild. Meanwhile, the same major stressors that have plagued these corals over the last few decades – disease and bleaching, both related to global warming – remain. The new findings support NOAA conclusions that mitigating these stressors is needed to achieve full, long-term recovery.

Citation: Ware M, Garfield EN, Nedimyer K, Levy J, Kaufman L, Precht W, Winters, RS, and Miller, SL. (2020) Survivorship and growth in staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis) outplanting projects in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. PLoS ONE 15(5): e0231817. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0231817