TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — University of South Florida (USF) researchers have rescued over 1,500 specimens during a historic ocean heat wave that marine scientists fear could be the “death knell” for Florida’s coral.

The Florida Institute of Oceanography’s (FIO) Keys Marine Laboratory – which is hosted by the university – is ready to take on even more coral to protect the sensitive organisms, according to a release from USF and FIO. Many of the corals housed at the site are rare and endangered species. 

Hot ocean temperatures cause coral to become stressed, which leads to them expelling the symbiotic algae that lives in their tissues. This puts the coral at a greater risk of dying, according to NOAA.

The coral bleaching crisis arrived over a month ahead of the typical “bleaching season,” Dr. Derek Manzello with NOAA Coral Reef Watch told WFLA Chief Meteorologist and Climate Specialist Jeff Berardelli last week. Manzello said that unless the “unprecedented” record-high ocean temperatures subside, “the corals of the Florida Keys may be looking at upwards of three consecutive months of thermally-stressful conditions. Most previous bleaching events lasted about 4-6 weeks.”

The USF/FIO marine laboratory, which “contains one of the largest temperature-controlled seawater systems in the Florida Keys,” can house thousands of additional specimens, which are harvested from offshore nurseries and parent colonies.

“For years we have been developing the infrastructure capacity to support reef restoration efforts that enable KML to temporarily house corals during emergencies such as this,” Cynthia Lewis, director of the Keys Marine Laboratory, said. “Typically, water temperatures at this time of year are in the mid 80s, but we are already recording temperatures of 90 degrees. It is very alarming.” 

Once water temperatures return to an acceptable level – which could happen after multiple tropical storms or hurricanes pass through, Manzello said – the corals will be placed in off-shore nurseries before returning to their natural environment. Scientists and restoration groups will attach them to reefs using epoxy, cement, zip ties and nails. 

Other corals will be placed in breeding programs, like the Coral Conservation Program at The Florida Aquarium, to help restore the reefs with their offspring.

“We are very fortunate that aquarium systems like those at Keys Marine Laboratory are available and can be reliably used to stabilize and hold corals in emergency situations,” Keri O’Neil, director and senior scientist of the Coral Conservation Program, said. “Some of the corals held here today will become part of our coral breeding program at The Florida Aquarium and will be given world-class human care for the rest of their lives, producing hundreds of offspring every year.”

Florida’s coral reefs serve as vital habitat for marine creatures and act as a buffer from erosion during storms. As a result of record warm oceans, NOAA’s coral bleaching forecast in the Caribbean this summer is extensive, with most places near 100%.