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Mote Tropical Research Laboratory Works to Restore Florida’s Coral Reefs

Coral reefs are a vital part of the earth’s biosphere — they are often called the rainforests of the sea because they contain such a high level of concentrated diversity. Unfortunately, they have been negatively impacted by pollution, shifts in ocean chemistry, ocean warming, overfishing, increased disease, ship groundings and hurricanes. Along with reducing pollution in order to protect these precious ocean habitats, direct coral reef restoration is a process that can aid some types of coral reefs.

Coral reef restoration is the process of carrying out coral propagation and restoration projects in order to better understand and re-build damaged reefs. Mote Tropical Research Laboratory (Mote TRL) field station in the Florida Keys is making great strides in growing coral in controlled environments and then replanting reefs in the wild.

What are Coral Reefs?

Corals are polyps and are relatives of sea anemones. They are cylindrical and use the stinging tentacles around their mouths to catch small organisms. Unlike anemones, they are known for their hard, mineral skeleton. explains shallow water corals also often feed off single-celled algae called zooxanthellae, which lend coral the bright colors they are known for. The algae energize the coral and the coral feeds the algae nutrients. This process allows the coral to grow rapidly into what we call reefs.

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In 2016, the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, an enormous 25 million-year-old structure, became a trending topic after and other publications posted dramatic obituaries for the reef in order to draw attention to its poor condition. Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were quick to point out that the reef is dying from coral bleaching, not dead, and still needs our help. When water temperatures rise, reefs exhibit coral bleaching, which is when they expel or lose the algae that gives them color and energy. In 2017, the Great Barrier Reef experienced another widespread bleaching event, according to an aerial survey from the ARC Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

While reefs cover only one percent of the earth and two percent of the ocean floor, they house and/or feed about 25 percent of all ocean life. Reefs also provide humans with seafood to eat, shoreline protection, medicine and a tourism industry valued at over $30 billion annually. Mote TRL shares that Florida sees up to $5 billion of this, with almost $1 billion in the Florida Keys alone, where they focus their restoration research.

Mote Marine Laboratory

Mote Marine Laboratory is an independent marine research institution that was established in 1955 as Cape Haze Marine Laboratory in Placida, Florida. It was later renamed for benefactor William R. Mote. They evolved from one small building to multiple spaces including several field stations, a base campus, aquarium, aquaculture campus, public exhibit, and outreach office in Sarasota, Key West, Summerland Key and Boca Grande. Their website states, “driven by research, education and excitement, we work to create a better environment for ourselves and our children.”

Mote TRL studies diverse scientific topics including sharks, manatees, sea turtles, dolphins, human cancer, environmental toxins and their effects, wild fisheries, sustainable fish restocking and food production, and coral reefs. Dr. David Vaughan is the Executive Director of Mote TRL in Summerland Key, Florida, and manager of the Coral Restoration Program and Protect Our Reef Grants program. He works on reef restoration at Mote TRL in collaboration with the Nature Conservancy, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, community volunteers, Florida universities and other participants.

In a Mote TRL YouTube video, Vaughan says, ““People have asked me, what it will cost to restore all the corals back to the way they remember. But, I have to ask them, what will it cost if we don’t do anything?” Mote TRL works to determine the best techniques, seasons, and coral sizes and shapes for reef restoration. Their site shares their “research is focused on developing culture or propagation methods for more than 20 species of hard corals under controlled environmental conditions for reef restoration research.”

After monitoring reefs for several years, they began to rescue coral from damaged colonies. They then fragment it, mount it on coral culture bases, and maintain specific water chemistry and light conditions in the lab to promote growth. Mote TRL has been able to produce thousands of coral colonies to transplant back into to the original reefs.

Erich Bartels, Staff Scientist and Program Manager of the Coral Reef Monitoring and Assessment program, explained that in 2015 they were growing over 13,000 clippings of staff worm coral in their underwater nursery. They have been very pleasantly surprised to find that their coral is growing four times faster than in the wild. Also, the coral they re-planted had a greater than 95 percent survivorship after a year in the wild.

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Mote TRL’s research trials in reef restoration are ongoing, as are their diverse educational offerings, ranging from school group visits to internships to kayaking trips. You can learn more about their youth education programs in this video, in which they say participants “learn a love of the water, a love of the organisms, and how to respect them and live side by side with them.” You can learn more about Mote TRL’s explorations and progress with coral reef restoration online and follow Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

In other positive coral reef news, reports that after a 20-year survey, scientists announced the discovery of “the world’s most expansive coral reef system ever recorded” in the Hawaiian Archipelago. It’s over three square miles and is home to numerous distinct species. The Nature Conservancy describes a variety of ways we can all support coral reefs, such as saving water and reducing fuel emissions, in this helpful article.



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