photo: Miami-Dade County
Photo: Joe Marino
Every year we work with a wide range of stakeholders and partners, with the shared goal of improving coral reef conservation and management. Our SEFCRI vice chairs elect to spotlight someone who goes above and beyond – our annual Coral Champion. The coral champion award recognizes someone who has made a significant contribution or effort towards the conservation and preservation of the Coral ECA.
2023: Keri O'Neil (Florida Aquarium)
This year’s Coral Champion is Keri O’Neil! Keri is the senior coral scientist at the Florida Aquarium’s Center for Conservation in Apollo Beach, Florida. At the Florida Aquarium, she cares for corals rescued from Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease in Florida. In addition, she oversees the spawning lab where Keri and her team spearheaded the world’s first induced spawning event of threatened pillar corals in a laboratory setting. Not only is she a renowned scientist but she is also an incredible mentor to her team.
Testaments from her colleagues:
Keri truly has the magic touch when it comes to corals. She has pioneered husbandry and spawning techniques that will have a real impact on the future of coral reefs. She is a “yes” person, always finding a way to make whatever needs to be done happen. Her drive, her talent, and her passion for this field benefit those around her and, most importantly, the reefs she loves. It has been my honor to call her a colleague and a friend; I can think of no one more deserving of this honor.
– Karen Neely, Nova Southeastern University
Keri is the coral baby whisperer and general rock star in all things related to corals in human care!
– Jennifer Moore, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Keri O’Neil pioneered the induction of the sexual reproduction of Caribbean corals in laboratory. For the past 5 years she has sexually propagated more than ten species of endangered and SCTLD-sensitive coral species, producing several thousands of new corals that were outplanted on the reefs of Southeast Florida. Keri provides guidance to all the other teams propagating corals in the region, sharing openly was she has learned through the years so others can follow her steps and scale-up coral restoration in our area. She is a true Coral Champion!
2022: Lisa Gregg (Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission)
This year, our coral champion is the incredible Lisa Gregg, Program and Policy Coordinator at Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC) Division of Marine Fisheries Management. Lisa has been instrumental in rescuing Florida’s corals during the emergency of Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease, and in guiding the larger coral community in coral rescue and relocation. You can follow the rescued Florida corals on the FWC’s Coral Rescue – Coral Monitoring Dashboard, and watch a coral rescue mission in action here.
“Lisa has had a measurable impact on ensuring coral conservation is incorporated into coastal construction projects. For the last decade, Lisa has been leading the charge with the development of best practices to relocate corals, ensuring FWC’s recommendations are updated as new information becomes available and new threats emerge, such as the Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease….Lisa’s tireless work on this topic has resulted in conservation benefits beyond Florida and achievements of this kind and scale make Lisa an especially deserving recipient for the SEFCRI coral champion award.”
“[Lisa’s] efforts were instrumental in developing the Coral Rescue Plan and creating a partnership with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to find homes for over 2,300 rescued corals around the country at zoos, aquariums, and academic and research facilities.”
Congratulations Lisa! Thank you for your incredible contributions that continue to impact coral reef ecosystems in Florida and beyond.
2021: Dr. Brian Walker (Nova Southeastern University)
Dr. Brian Walker is a true coral champion and has been an incredible partner to the Southeast Florida Coral Reef Initiative (SEFCRI) and Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Coral Reef Conservation Program. Dr. Walker heads the GIS and Spatial Ecology Laboratory at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Explore the lab’s YouTube page to enjoy some of the virtual reality footage that was featured in the Florida’s Coral Reef booth at the 2020 Miami Super Bowl LIVE fan festival.
“From the very early days
of the Coral Reef Conservation Program and SEFCRI, when we did not understand where the reefs were, he developed the benthic habitat maps that are now fundamental to every decision we make. He has helped us assess reef injuries to help enforce Florida’s Coral Reef Protection Act, assess and relocate the commercial anchorages in Southeast Florida to avoid impacts to reefs using those maps.”
~Joanna Walczak, DEP Coral Protection and Restoration Program Administrator
“When we were creating and implementing SEFCRI’s Our Florida Reefs Community Planning Process, we needed a decision support tool to help stakeholders explore the data we had and provide their recommendations. Brian researched the options and worked with us to develop the Marine Planner.”
~Jamie Monty, DEP Coral Reef Conservation Program Manager
Brian is also an excellent example of a highly adaptable coral researcher, working closely with DEP on the priority of the moment. When stony coral tissue loss disease began impacting our reefs, Brian was one of the first to ask what he could do to help. He shifted almost his entire focus to working with partners to develop and implement intervention treatments that would stop the disease lesions from progressing. He is currently leading a Disease Strike Team that has saved hundreds of priority massive colonies in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Read the blog Coral Strike Team Responds to SEAFAN Report.
Brian has discovered 100+ previously unknown massive coral colonies and many patches of threatened staghorn coral. Explore some of his lab’s work via the story map Saving the Exceptional Corals in Florida’s Coral Reef Ecosystem.