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Ferndale aquarist helping to save coral from deadly disease

By: Mike Koury | Woodward Talk | Published December 10, 2019

 Ferndale resident Lauren Marcon, an aquarist at the Sea Life Michigan Aquarium in Auburn Hills, holds up rescued coral from Florida. Coral in Florida are facing a threat from a disease that is killing the animal.

Ferndale resident Lauren Marcon, an aquarist at the Sea Life Michigan Aquarium in Auburn Hills, holds up rescued coral from Florida. Coral in Florida are facing a threat from a disease that is killing the animal.

Photo by Erin Sanchez

 The smooth flower coral, Eusmilia fastigiata, and the yellow finger coral, Madracis auretenra, are two species saved from the oncoming threat of stony coral tissue loss disease in the Florida Reef Tract.

The smooth flower coral, Eusmilia fastigiata, and the yellow finger coral, Madracis auretenra, are two species saved from the oncoming threat of stony coral tissue loss disease in the Florida Reef Tract.

Photo by Erin Sanchez

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FERNDALE — The coral reef in Florida has been battling stony-coral tissue loss disease since 2014.

The disease wipes out the tissue of the stony corals, which die rapidly after becoming infected. To help combat the problem, healthy or at-risk coral from the reef is being sent to zoos and aquariums around the United States.

This program, created by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, is called the Florida Reef Tract Rescue Project. The Sea Life Michigan Aquarium in Auburn Hills is taking part in the program by housing 15 corals.

One of the lead aquarists at Sea Life who is working to save the coral is Ferndale resident Lauren Marcon. After hearing about the rescue program, she said that she and Sea Life jumped at the chance to get involved.

“It’s completely different from coral bleaching and ocean acidification,” she said. “This is a completely different problem. We don’t know where it’s coming from or how it’s being transferred from coral to coral. We just know that it’s moving rapidly throughout the reef tract.”

Marcon said researchers are diving every day to track the disease, working with coral that has been affected and rescuing coral before the disease hits.

Coral has been housed at Sea Life for three months, and Marcon said they’ve been studying the disease, trying to figure out what causes it, why it spreads and how they can help the corals affected by it.

“The hopeful part is that we have hundreds of corals that are being held in captivity that haven’t been affected by it yet,” she said. “So eventually, we can put them back out on the reef to help rebuild the reef if the worst happens. This is a really hopeful situation because we are ahead of the disease and we’re pulling them out of the reef and putting them in a safe spot until the disease is completely eradicated.”

Sea Life curator Kelli Cadenas said that taking care of the corals is about keeping their environment perfect, as they require clean water to absorb the vitamins they need.

The proper lighting also plays into managing the corals, as different species have different lighting requirements. All the corals are kept in the same tank.

“Some, we have directly under the light,” she said. “Some are farther away, and then there’s a couple that are more aggressive corals that have a long … tentacle that can come out, especially at night. So those have to be kept farther away from everybody else.”    

Cadenas and Marcon manage the conservation efforts for the corals. As Cadenas put it, Marcon jumped right on the project and was ready to help after the AZA put out the call to aquariums.

“She stood up and volunteered for it, and that’s definitely what got the project going,” Cadenas said. “(Marcon’s) working on it every day.”

Marcon previously got field experience working with a coral restoration project in Curaçao. She’s worked with coral since Sea Life’s exhibit opened at Great Lakes Crossing Outlets in 2017.

According to Marcon, corals and the coral reef don’t get much attention in the public eye because “they don’t have a face and they’re not cuddly, soft animals,” but she hopes that people start taking more notice of what’s going on.

“They’re kind of forgotten in that sense, where a lot of people just think they’re plants, but they’re not, and they’re super important to Earth because they’re the rainforest of the sea. … They hold so much of the biodiversity in the ocean. A lot of animals grow up in the coral reef, so they’re just so important.”

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