Community Environment

Tampa Electric helps spawn amazing international environmental success story (Or: Love by the light of the pretend August moon)

Lab-spawned coral at the Florida Conservation and Technology Center, a joint effort between the Florida Aquarium, TECO, FWC and the University of Florida. Above, Amber Whittle, the Florida Aquarium’s director for Conservation, shows coral from the lab that may hold the key to revitalizing the species.

When the future of Atlantic coral is written, it may well include a chapter set on Tampa Electric-owned land in Apollo Beach, Fl. That’s where Florida Aquarium researchers at the Center for Conservation have just scored a major victory for the world’s oceans.

The problem was a disease that had decimated the pillar coral population in the Atlantic Ocean, in the world’s third-largest reef. Reefs are like rain forests underwater: organisms themselves, they form the floor of the food chain that supports an ocean of life. If coral goes extinct, Earth is in big trouble. (Another important benefit coral provides is helping protect coastlines from hurricanes by creating barriers to wave motion.)

“In addition to disease and environmental conditions harming it, pillar coral reproduces only one time each year, after the first full moon in August,” said Stan Kroh, manager of Land & Stewardship Programs with Tampa Electric. “The sperm and eggs only have a chance to come in contact with each other if nurtured in captivity because the males and females are typically too far apart in the wild, where scientists had been unable to collect the coral’s sperm and eggs.”

He added, “Pillar coral has become functionally extinct in the wild – and seemed doomed to die out.”

Until now. What once would have been science fiction is reality: using sophisticated computer models and LED lighting, researchers were able to simulate with pinpoint accuracy the light and temperature the coral needs in order to mate. And like that, at the Center for Conservation, new life was born.

More young coral at FCTC.

“It blows my mind to see this international success story happen in Tampa Electric’s back yard,” Kroh said. “The ultimate goal now will be for the researchers to continue to work toward a place where lab-grown pillar coral and other species of coral can be reintroduced back into the wild to help repopulate the Atlantic Reef.”

And if that happens, a groundbreaking partnership will be a key aspect of the researchers’ success. Tampa Electric’s role in this incredible research feat has been one in the making for several years through a multi-faceted partnership, a passion for the environment and some amazing science. This partnership has been spearheaded in part by Tampa Electric Senior Vice President of Distributed Energy and Renewables Tom Hernandez, who serves on the board of directors for the Florida Aquarium. His visionary mindset and commitment helped bring this partnership together.

The partnership includes the Center for Conservation, which is located at the Florida Conservation and Technology Center (FCTC), a joint effort between Tampa Electric, the Florida Aquarium, the University of Florida and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. FCTC is part of an environmental campus that includes children’s programs and activities for learning and recreation alongside other great success stories, like important research on sea urchins and the work to rescue, rehabilitate and rescue injured sea turtles.

Another close-up look at coral that serves as a critical part of the ecosystem in the Atlantic Reef.

Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center, meanwhile, is a one-of-a-kind opportunity for people to see manatees and way more up close (with free parking and admission) and a new season that kicks off Nov. 1. It’s also a place where you can touch the actual Tampa Bay rays (as in the baseball team’s official aquatic mascots).

This brings us back to the Florida Aquarium, which oversees the health of those rays – along with coral that was on the brink of extinction.

“The Florida Aquarium has been an outstanding partner with Tampa Electric over the years and it’s only getting more exciting,” Hernandez said. “Just as TECO’s efforts to help the environment overall have grown by leaps and bounds, the Aquarium has grown its capabilities to literally save a species of coral. This is what our original dream for FCTC was all about – the Tampa Bay community and the entire world owe the game-changing researchers at the Center for Conservation our thanks.”


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