Monday, November 17, 2008

Coral Popsicles and Green Epoxy

"Don't Touch the Coral!" Touching it can kill it. Coral looks hard, but are extremely delicate. On my first day at Biscayne NP, I touched a lot of coral. I was handling it like crazy. I was playing with coral Popsicles. So what's up with these coral Popsicles? They represent a long-term (your-lifetime-plus-100-years long-term) project run by Richard Curry (picture to come soon) here at Biscayne aimed at saving some of the coral reefs of Florida. Here's the deal. Boats run aground in this park all of the time. They crash on the reef (there are wrecks everywhere around here --- there's even a section of this national park that is basically controlled by England because it has a wreck here.). When they crash, they destroy coral. So what can be done to help save the reef? Well, some folks go out and try to reset fallen coral and secure them so that they'll stay and then the little fragments go into making coral Popsicles. Coral pieces are collected and sawed down into little chips. Those coral chips are places on green epoxy attached to a rod that has a bar code on it. Voila. Coral Popsicle. Boards with holes are then placed in protected areas in the bay and the little Popsicles are set into the boards and the coral is left to grow. This project is a serious test of patience. It may take about 10 years for the little chip to grow into a little ball that can be sawed off and placed back onto the reef (all of the scraps can be recycled to make new Popsicles). It may take much, much longer.

On my first day at Biscayne, I went out with a group of students from the University of Miami and we tended to the Popsicles. Very few people in the world get to handle coral in this way (other than people that really don't know what they're doing and they're killing the coral by touching it and other people that are collecting coral -- probably illegally-- to sell it). It appears to be the only experiment of its kind. There are labs that grow coral, but this is out in the wild.
Having the coral in the wild does create some problems. All kinds of things grow on the Popsicles and can overgrow the coral. Algae and firecorals grow on the epoxy and Popsiclesticks and must be removed occassionally. That's where student and volunteer aid (e.g., me) comes in. What are these students doing in this picture? Scraping firecoral (yeah, that's what that burning sensation was) and algae off of the Popsicles so that the coral can be weighed and have a mug-shot taken. First we had to dive down and collect the corals. Covered in overgrowth, knives were drawn and Popsicles were scraped unitl the green could be seen (like the Popsicles in the first picture). Doing this helps determine the growth rates of the corals itself (to determine how many lifetimes it will take to restore a piece of reef destroyed by a careless boater, for example). Once scraped a crack-team of coral weighers would scan the bar codes, weight the Coralsicles, and take a picture of the growth (to determine area). (How come I seem to get my foot in so many pictures?)
This project amazes me. In academia, it would be difficult or impossible to obtain funding for a project that takes 10 years to get results. What kind of person would consider starting a project that will take a lifetime to complete? To many it may seem futile or misguided. To me it's stunningly ambitious.

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