Florida Aquarium tries to jump-start coral growth in Apollo Beach test

Under the water, on tiny tiles at the Florida Aquarium's Conservation Center in Apollo Beach, babies are growing.

"Baby corals from this past year's coral spawn in the Keys," explained coral biologist Rachel Seraphin. "These individuals are all staghorn coral, which is our main reef building coral for the Florida reef track."

The Florida Aquarium is having big success in coral reproduction.  The team collected spawn during a dive in the Florida Keys back in August.

"We bring those bundles back to the lab where we break them apart, separate the sperm and the egg, fertilize the eggs, make sure the fertilization process has happened," continued Seraphin.  "The importance of the sexual reproduction of corals is being able to diversify our genetic pool of corals so that they can battle disease, weather events, temperature swings -- high or low, or any other factors."

More than 100 of these baby corals have survived and flourished under this care. It's hope for the effort to strengthen coral reefs.

"Especially, the Florida reef track. About 98 percent has declined since the 80's," said Seraphin.

Some of that is caused by man, including land-based pollution like runoff.  There's also the decline of sharks.

"The sharks are eating some of the top predators in the ocean that may be preying on herbivores or important species that help keep reefs clean for either new coral recruits to land, also for corals just to grow uninhibited from algae," explained Seraphin.

And then there's hurricanes.

"These hurricanes, when they are bigger and more frequent, are breaking apart our reefs and our reefs are not able to come back as quickly as they normally would,” said Seraphin. 

But these baby corals could change that.

"If we can take a coral that grows very quickly and a coral that we have found to be more disease-resistant and combine with those gametes, maybe we can create a coral that's just going to evolve with our changing ocean more quickly than they would naturally," said Seraphin.  

The hope is to get these babies back on the reef in the coming months. 

"To help protect our fisheries, our biodiversity, our shorelines and overall health of our ocean,” Seraphin added.

The Florida Aquarium also works with other partners on this project, and they are getting global attention. They recently shared their findings at the World Aquaculture Conference in Las Vegas.