We did it! A Coral Gene Bank is in the Works!

Confronted with the urgency of facing corals during this year’s record heat, Tela Coral, the non-profit I helped establish last summer with Heather Kuhlken and Tiffany Duong, launched an emergency campaign to build a genetic bank to protect the unusually healthy coral in Tela, Honduras. And people from around the world responded!

Thanks to generous gifts, in donations both large and as small as $5, Tela Coral was beyond thrilled to to raise $25,000 for construction of the facility. Elkhorn corals, a species that used to dominate the Caribbean and but are expected to soon be extinct in Florida still flourish in Tela. This species will be the initial focus of the new gene bank.

As coral reefs around the world bleach and die from record heat waves, the unaccountably rich coral reefs in Tela, Honduras are a rare example of resilience. Discovered just a decade ago, this reef teems with over three dozen species of coral, a third of which are now critically endangered. Coral cover is tenfold that of other Caribbean reefs. Diseases common in other places are absent. Tela Coral nicknamed Tela the “Rebel Reef” because its resilience against all odds is so unexpected.

Because of its recent discovery, the Rebel Reef has received very little scientific attention. No genetic work has been performed in a place that may hold key clues to survival in a future ocean. Coupled with this scientific vacuum is news that the Great Barrier Reef experienced the worst bleaching in its history, and that heatwave is due to reach the Caribbean later this summer.

We recognized that there was no time to wait for science to catch up. Rebel Reef corals need protection before this summer’s heat wave arrives. In March, we launched an emergency campaign on social media and through word of mouth. The response was stunning, and we are so grateful for all of the generous contributions we received for this important project. People from around the world donated in amounts as small as $5 to protect the coral. Geneticists from The University of Texas at Austin made in-kind donations of their time and resources. Tela Marine, co-administrator of Tela’s Marine Protected Area, secured land for the facility.

At a ceremony on April 29, Tela Coral presented officials from Tela’s Marine Protected Area with a check for $25,000 sufficient to build the first phase of the gene bank. Construction is scheduled to begin immediately and elkhorn corals will be the first species to be protected.

By bringing fragments of corals into aquarium tanks that assure the coral’s health, they become a genetic bank through which we can begin to understand what makes the corals in Tela so special. And, with luck, we can share those lessons with other places and communities.

This is only the beginning. We will still need to maintain living corals in the gene bank, and we have a vision of using cryopreservation to ensure that the genetic material is safe permanently. We also recognize that most of the corals that thrive in Tela are also under threat of exctinction, so expanding to include as many species as we can is also an urgent aim.

For now, I want to recognize and thank all the people whose donations made this important step possible. As we said in Tela at the check donation ceremony, “Esto cheque encluye esperanza de un futuro in el que todos nuestros arrecifes y communidades florezcan.” This check includes hope for a future in which all of our reefs and communities can flourish.

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