Restoring Endangered Coral in the Caribbean

A photo of staghorn and elkhorn coral colonies in the Caribbean
Coral reefs off Curacao in the south Caribbean Sea (Paul Selvaggio 2012)

Hello everyone, this is Mark Schick, the Special Exhibits Collection Manager at Shedd Aquarium. I wanted to share a trip report from our latest coral conservation trip with the SECORE Foundation. The SECORE Foundation uses knowledge from coral scientists and aquarium professionals to develop tools that can help us breed and restore endangered corals. For the past three years, I’ve traveled to the Caribbean island of Curacao to participate in SECORE’s ongoing research on staghorn (Acropora cervicornis) and elkhorn (Acropora palmata) coral, two species that are listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List. Our long-term goal is to help develop protocols for reintroducing these and other endangered coral species into the wild.

Originally, Shedd contributed its expertise by helping SECORE to design and build a first-of-its-kind aquarium system in Puerto Rico that we refined and adapted for use in Curacao. This year, we helped collect coral gametes during their annual spawn, which happens just after the full moon every August. Often, billions of gametes are released simultaneously, a process that’s ensured the survival of corals for millions of years. Now that corals are under increasing stress from pollution, habitat loss and climate change, they’re having trouble reproducing—which is where SECORE and Shedd come in.

The coral restoration team learns how to maintain kreisels in the aquarium system.
Shedd Aquarium's Mark Schick demonstrates how to set up the kreisels in the coral culture system, which will harbor the developing larvae in the coming days. (Paul Selvaggio 2012)

The 2012 August moon was a “blue moon” that came early, so we collected a smaller amount of elkhorn coral spawn than usual. Luckily, we were still able to bring the larvae back to the Curacao Sea Aquarium system, which Shedd and other aquariums helped design and build. This first-of-its-kind system introduces young corals to the conditions they will experience in their native habitats before SECORE teams move them to nearby reefs. SECORE is currently investigating the best time to transplant young corals to reefs. Coral are very labor-intensive to maintain as they grow bigger, but we want to introduce them back to the wild at a time when they’re most likely to thrive.

The dive team fertilizes coral spawn after a collecting trip.
A night dive in rough conditions finished with fertilization on the beach! Since coral sperm is only viable for a short period of time, the dive teams at Spanish waters performed fertilization directly after the dive and returned to the laboratory at the Sea Aquarium. (Paul Selvaggio 2012)

In addition to collecting Acropora gametes with SECORE, I also worked with a species called labyrinth brain coral (Diploria labrinthiformes). We still don’t know when many corals reproduce, so we monitor different species like Diploria in the hopes that we’ll observe a spawning event. We were also able to dive near the island’s eastern edge, in an unpolluted ecosystem where healthy corals abound. SECORE’s partner in Curacao, CARMABI, is working to purchase this untouched habitat to preserve it for future generations of researchers and field conservationists.

Next year, I’ll return to Curacao with SECORE’s other partners as we continue our efforts to conserve endangered corals and the countless marine animals that depend on them for survival. In the meantime, be sure to visit the SECORE Foundation’s blog if you’d like to read more about our work.

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
The John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago sparks compassion, curiosity and conservation for the aquatic animal world. Home to 32,000 aquatic animals representing 1,500 species of fishes, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, birds and mammals from waters around the globe, Shedd is a recognized leader in animal care, conservation education and research. An accredited member of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) and the first U.S. aquarium to be awarded the Humane Conservation™ certification mark for the care and welfare of its animals by American Humane, the organization is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institute, and is supported by the people of Chicago, the State of Illinois and the Chicago Park District.