Mitch Carl may live in landlocked Omaha, but he's committed to saving creatures that live in seas and oceans.
“Coral's kind of my thing,” said Carl, curator of aquatics at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium and a member of the zoo and aquarium advisory board of SECORE, an organization dedicated to saving coral around the world.
Many people don't realize that coral is a living organism, so part of Carl's job in Omaha is educating visitors to the Scott Aquarium at the zoo about this interesting creature and its many species.
Outside of the zoo, the 40-year-old aquarist travels the world to study corals and to work on projects designed to save them.
Corals are dying out at an alarming rate for both man-made reasons — over-fishing, overzealous harvesting, sea pollution, deforestation and development runoff, sedimentation — and natural causes such as hurricanes.
For Carl, it started as a hobby — collecting freshwater fish at 12 or 13 led to a job in a pet store. While working at Animal Talk Pet Center during college he developed a liking for saltwater fish and corals. He set up his first coral tank at home about this time.
He took a scuba diving class during his first semester at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he studied biology, graduating in 1996. He became a volunteer scuba diver at the zoo in 1997 and a few months later was hired as an aquarist there.
At the time he was hired, coral-saving was in its infancy, Carl said .
Kathy Vires, his supervisor at the time, let him run with his ideas on working with corals. He built tanks at the zoo and began raising corals. Carl became aquarist supervisor at the zoo in 2008 and aquatics curator in 2009.
About a decade ago, he heard about SECORE (Sexual Coral Reproduction) and the work of Dirk Peterson of the Rotterdam Zoo in the Netherlands. Carl joined SECORE in 2005 to work with Peterson, who now is president of SECORE's board of directors.
In 2006, Carl went to Puerto Rico, where about 98 percent of the coral had died out. One reason is stress-induced disease. Another is the fact that the coral spawns (releases eggs and sperm) in a small space of time, usually only a couple of hours on one specific day.
Cultivating coral has called for persistence and ingenuity, Carl said, adding that the SECORE teams have used everything from ladies' slips to salad bowls as scientific instruments.
“The first year, we didn't know what we were doing,” Carl said. “It was trial and error.”
Carl and others brought coral eggs and sperm back to their respective institutions to see if they could sexually reproduce larvae. The Omaha zoo was the only success story in the first two years of the experiment, but the zoo has gone back mostly to asexual reproduction, Carl said.
So far SECORE members have reintroduced about 100 corals in the Caribbean, Carl said. “We are hoping to now ramp up the numbers with the techniques that we've come up with.”
Other countries have begun asking for the organization's help. SECORE has expanded and, as a result, Carl has traveled extensively. His most recent trip took him to the coral spawning area of Guam, which started its Coral Reef Initiative in 2011.
Omaha's zoo sponsored the SECORE workshop there in 2013 and will again this year and in 2015. Other workshops have been held in Mexico, the Philippines and Belize. SECORE, whose projects are funded by donations and grants, also has worked with the U.S. Navy in the Florida Keys.
Healthy coral reefs contribute to healthy marine ecosystems. Dying reefs seriously impact nature but also can have economic consequences, since many of the countries that have them depend on the reefs for people's livelihoods in tourism or fishing.
In the countries where they hold workshops, Carl said, SECORE welcomes residents of the local communities to visit the work sites. “A vast majority are very receptive and cooperative. They just don't have a good understanding of what the threats are to the reef and why it's important to have them around,” he said.
This summer, he will work in Guam again, with a possible side trip to the Philippines.
Is there danger from sharks in his work? “Unfortunately, sharks have been so over-fished that we have never encountered one during any of our dives,” he said.
“Would be cool to see one though!”