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Hurricane Ian? Fuhgeddaboudit! Mote scientists don't stop working to save Florida's Coral Reef

Color Photo of Floridas Coral Reef by NOAA.JPG
Bayles, Tom
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National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Florida's Coral Reef, which runs for 350 miles along the state's southern and eastern coasts, is being assaulted by a disease that threatens its continued existence. Reef rebuilders from Sarasota's Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium have been shrugging off the threat of impending tropical storms to continue healing the reef in an environmental struggle to save the largest coral reef in the continental U.S.

A funny thing happened at Mote Marine’s coral restoration labs in the keys when Hurricane Ian targeted Southwest Florida in late September.

Nothing.

“We were able to continue all of our work there, and our facility in the keys was not damaged,” said Stephannie Kettle, a spokeswoman for Sarasota’s Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium. “And we are continuing our reef restoration efforts throughout the Florida Keys.”

The incoming tropical system, expected to grow much stronger as it got closer, had captured the attention of the Mote staff in the keys even before the storm crossed Cuba as nobody yet knew for sure where it would make landfall.

And for good reason. Hurricane Ian went on to demolish Fort Myers Beach, stripping the barrier islands not just of buildings but also much of its flora and fauna.

Environmentalists on the barrier islands are still trying to determine if the gopher tortoise population drowned in their burrows en mass after Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation’s sea turtle researchers discovered all but one of the 18 nests still full of unhatched eggs were washed away.

It will be months, perhaps longer, before Hurricane Ian’s environmental damage in South Florida is quantified by locals, coastal communities, Everglades nonprofits and state and federal agencies.

Meanwhile, the marine scientists and coral restoration experts who never stopped working at Mote’s coral reef labs are folks nobody needs to check on.

Those scientists have been growing a lot of coral at the Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research & Restoration on Summerland Key since 2000, restoring more than 173,000 coral plants to Florida’s Coral Reef to help it heal.

Mote Planting coral of Key Largo.JPG
Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium
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Coral reef rebuilders replant on a diseased section of Florida's Coral Reef near Key Largo

Kettle said even as Hurricane Ian sideswiped Summerland Key on its way to Southwest Florida, Mote coral staff were hosting a successful conference to teach reef restoration techniques to other scientists.

On Wednesday, Kettle said the work Mote’s reef experts do was proceeding along, as always.

Reef disease scarier than hurricane

Florida’s Coral Reef is under assault by a seemingly insurmountable combination of man-made and natural attackers. That's why Mote has established such a presence on the islands of southern Monroe County.

At more than 350 miles long, Florida’s Coral Reef runs from the Dry Tortugas National Park, which is about 70 miles west of Key West, up the state’s eastern coast 350 miles to St. Lucie Inlet to the east of Lake Okeechobee. That’s the same distance Fort Myers is from the Bahamas.

The reef is comprised of more than 40 species of corals that provide shelter, food, and nursery and breeding sites for millions of ocean-based plants and animals

Also challenging and ongoing, ever since people started inhabiting Florida’s coasts, are the same problems facing anything natural trying to thrive along developed shorelines: Rampant, non-stop, coastal development means more homes and businesses nearly on top of the reef in places. Burning fossil fuels for energy emits carbon dioxide, which works its way back to the surface and makes seawater more acidic. Overfishing robs the reef of its biodiversity and leaves behind tangled nets, boat anchors, and tons of garbage.

However, the biggest environmental threat by far to the Florida Coral Reef is the Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease, which appears as white patches where it has consumed the brilliant colors live coral is known for and leaves a bright, white coral skeleton.

The National Parks Service said in a statement that the infectious, water-borne disease had been found on corals all the way down in the Dry Tortugas National Park last summer.

“Until now, Dry Tortugas National Park was the only remaining section of Florida’s Coral Reef to not show signs of the disease,” Pedro Ramos, superintendent of Everglades and Dry Tortugas national parks, said at the time. “Finding it early is significant, because without treatment, the disease has the potential to destroy the park’s underwater gardens, as affected corals have a nearly 100% mortality rate.”

The parks service said the coral tissue loss disease can now be found throughout the Florida Coral Reef and beyond, an outbreak that is “unprecedented” in its broad range, extended duration, massive coral mortality, and vast number of species the disease can ruin.

Fishy beginnings

Twenty years ago and 17 miles inland of downtown Sarasota, Mote Marine opened its first aquaculture complex: a nursery for 20,000 Siberian sturgeon. Big and healthy, the fish swam circles in what appeared to be white, above-ground pools under covered buildings.

At the time, Mote scientists said those 77 tons of fish were merely the first in a grand plan to harvest various sea life in Florida's then-emerging aquaculture industry. Despite a devastating fire at the fish nursery off Fruitville Road a few years later (it was rebuilt) time has proved the vision fortuitous.

Fast forward to 1993. That’s when Mote established its coral reef research station, first on Pigeon Key in Monroe County.

After five years of successes, the lab became known nationally as a leader in its field and scientists involved in various aspects of reef reclamation and rebuilding became regulars.

In 1998, an unimpressed Hurricane Georges destroyed the laboratory.

Two years later, the coral lab was rebuilt on nearby Summerland Key, where it remains. Mote has since opened two more on-land coral nurseries on hurricane-prone Islamorada and Key Largo.

“We are extremely excited to open the first land-based nursery here in Key Largo,” said Michael P. Crosby, Mote’s president and CEO, during a recent visit to the newest center several weeks ago. “We are committed to bringing Florida’s coral reef back from the brink of functional extinction.”

Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by VoLo Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to accelerate change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education, and improving health. 

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