Reef systems the world over have seen sharp increases in coral mortality, through a myriad of factors both natural and man-made. Within the Florida Keys, these systems have become especially vulnerable in recent years, and nurturing these delicate systems is a challenging, laborious process. In response, many organizations throughout the Florida Keys have been directly combating the problem through scientific work and community involvement. One institution, Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, has been a keystone in this endeavor for 65 years.
Article by John Tapley; photos courtesy Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium
The Cause for Corals
Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium is an independent, 501(c)3 non-profit marine science institution headquartered in Sarasota, Florida. The institution was founded in 1955 by acclaimed scuba diver and shark researcher Dr. Eugenie “The Shark Lady” Clark alongside philanthropist Anne Vanderbilt, and largely funded by local entrepreneur and conservationist Bill Mote.
Today, Mote Marine boasts over 22 different research programs across six locations throughout the State of Florida. The base in Sarasota, within Summerland Key, features a large aquarium, which showcases marine science in motion, complemented by an aquaculture park; field stations are positioned in Boca Grande and Summerland Key; two exhibit locations in the Florida Keys, one in NOAA’s Eco-Discovery Center in Key West, and the other at Islamorada’s Florida Keys History & Discovery Center. The Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research and Restoration (IC2R3) works to restore a variety of coral species through sexual and asexual means.
“What we’re trying to through our efforts is reach in our reef tract: to bring it back to where it can naturally start to repopulate itself,” says Allison Delashmit, Florida Keys Community Relations Manager for Mote Marine. “We’ve seen over the last several decades, a pretty sharp and steep decline in our reef structure. We’ve gone from 60 to 70 percent coral tissue cover to one to two percent.”
“That means we’ve found ourselves in a state where our coral reef is functionally extinct,” she continues. “It cannot naturally repopulate itself on its own: there’s not enough living tissue out there. We have to embark upon some impressive human intervention around research and restoration efforts and try to help bring the population back to a sustainable level.”
Mote Marine participants propagate corals asexually via micro-fragmentation, which accelerates growth 40 times faster than in the wild. This acceleration benefits sexual reproduction when the corals are planted. An advanced lab program studies coral’s specific genotypes, unique DNA, to see whether or not they can withstand common stressors; and this data is critical to the facility’s long-term coral restoration initiatives.
Florida’s reef systems are rapidly decaying at historic levels. This mission, as Delashmit emphasizes, is critical:
“In addition to the stressors we’re all pretty familiar with, like microplastics, warming waters, and more acidic waters, there’s a current coral disease, stony coral tissue loss disease, that has been ravaging our reefs. It’s been significant in its destruction and it’s the most significant coral disease we’ve ever seen: it kills about 80 percent of the coral it comes in contact with and it does it very quickly. It has moved throughout our reef tract and now it’s moving throughout the Caribbean. At this point, we know very little about it… We’re trying to figure out how to combat it and help others combat it as well.”
As part of its ongoing mission to safeguard Florida’s reefs, Mote Marine has partnered with NOAA’s Mission: Iconic Reefs: an extensive, longstanding program to nurture and transplant corals to areas that have seen significant coral reduction within the 300-mile Florida Reef Tract. Mote Marine serves as one of several coral restoration partners in Mission: Iconic Reefs, which are working on seven vital reef sites throughout the tract.
“We’ve already done outplanting on three of the seven reefs pretty heavily: that’s where a lot of efforts have been focused. With the seven icon reefs initiative, we’ve put an emphasis on special areas: to bring it back to 15 to 25 percent coral cover, which is a lot compared to what’s on there now. It’s going to take a significant effort by a few of us practitioners who are doing this with NOAA.
“[Mote is] bringing restoration to the table but restoration only works if the coral that you’re putting back on the reefs… you believe it’s going to survive. At Mote we’re studying every single coral we have from both our asexual propagation as well as our sexual reproduction cycles to see how they handle end of century predictions of pH levels, water temperatures and coral disease… the ones that have those resilient traits we find to be so desirable: we’re using those coral to reskin the reef but also use those corals to breed to try and capitalize on their offspring. All corals have genetic qualities that are different so we’re able, in a laboratory setting, to control which parents sexually reproduce together so we’re getting the highest chance of a long-term offering. We need diversity in coral restoration and resilient corals. We’re putting a lot of science behind identifying them and using their traits to our advantage.”
Mote Marine’s efforts are made possible through dedicated oceanographers, marine biologists, student interns, and scuba divers, with 20 staff members serving in its Summerland Key headquarters. Local volunteers select reef sites within the Keys. Visitors out of town engage with a new program, Reef Revival, wherein they tour the lab and learn the ins and outs of corals, including restoration, and work on field nurseries.
“We have here, at the Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef and Restoration, a land-based nursery, which is a vast, large area where we have tanks of coral growing until they get to be a certain size that we can then take and outplant. We also have field nurseries out on the water: tree-like structures we’re growing coral on. With the Reef Revival program, our nursery is only about 24-feet deep – [volunteers] go down, help clean the trees, and they will clip the coral into desired sizes, and rehang those on trees and potentially outplant those on our behalf with our scientists and staff.”
Since its founding, Mote Marine has been a beacon for the seaside communities that dot the region. Its mission is both a boon to these communities and an opportunity to get people active and engaged. Celebrating the spirit of the ocean and the community that protects these delicate coral structures is Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium’s Ocean Fest event, which has been a mainstay in the region for 10 years. Ocean Fest is slated for Saturday, March 28 at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary’s Eco-Discovery Center and Truman Waterfront in Key West, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The daylong festival offers a range of family-friendly activities and events for ocean aficionados and eco enthusiasts of all ages and tastes. Visitors can absorb the communal efforts made to their aquatic neighborhoods through conservation and environmental exhibits, meet with Mote Marine scientists, see and touch live animals, and get into the Key West spirit with local vendors, food, and music. Kid friendly activities include Mote Marine’s mobile reef exhibit, a Boy Scouts of America fishing clinic and an interactive oceanic painting session directed by acclaimed artist Wyland.
New to 2020’s celebration is a beer garden. Florida Keys Brewing Company will bring out a new libation, The Resistant Strain, specifically for Ocean Fest. A large portion of proceeds from every sale of this specialty will directly go to Mote Marine’s restoration work in Summerland Key. Similarly, Darwin Brewing Company of Tampa will share two new beers, Reef Revival and Loggerhead Lager; proceeds from these beers will also go to Mote’s research efforts.
Ocean Fest started from humble beginnings, and after a decade has grown into a community-driven event honoring Mote Marine’s many allies, which include Florida Fish and Wildlife, Save the Turtle, The Dolphin Research Center, Reef Relief, The Nature Conservancy, and Florida Keys SPCA.
“It was a very small affair in the beginning. It was located at the Eco-Discovery Center in Key West, in the parking lot, and it was a way to drive attention to our exhibit within the center. We wanted to also use it to highlight other environmentally conscious conservation partners we have in the Keys. There’s a lot of people doing a lot of great work: not just on coral but with stone crabs, mangroves, and lobsters. The inspiration was to highlight ourselves, and also give our partners a platform.
“It grew and blossomed from there. It started with 10 different vendors and has now grown to 70 to 80 different vendors. It was more of a tabling expedition event initially; it grows incrementally every year. We’re continuing to morph this into a large community festival, but ultimately it’s still meant to be the same in that we want a platform to showcase what Mote does and allow us to join hands with others.”
Ocean Fest is a free to attend festivity with proceeds and donations supporting Mote Marine’s mission. For more details, including a full list of activities and exhibitors, visit mote.org/oceanfest.
A Symbol of Hope
Alongside its impassioned partners, Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium is making waves in nurturing one of the world’s most vital natural resources. In light of the catastrophe facing corals, Mote Marine is looking into the future with positivity and hope.
“It’s easy to get caught in the sadness: about what’s happened to our reefs. Here at Mote we believe we possess then knowledge to successfully intervene and regrow and reinvigorate the growth of our coral reef tract longterm. It’s important people know, understand, and work toward their own ways helping us conserve the reef. It’s important that we express this symbol of hope… We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t feel we could make a difference quickly and correctly.”
For more details on Mote Marine, including volunteer and donation opportunities, visit mote.org.