Mote Marine shares insights on new aquarium, coral reef restoration projects

Mote Marine Laboratory President and CEO Dr. Michael P. Crosby underscored the urgency of Mote's ocean conservation efforts during a virtual behind-the-scenes experience co-hosted by PNC Wealth Management over Zoom on Sept. 30. 

"I'm one of the lucky ones to have been born in Florida and lived in Key West as a little boy. I was too young to snorkel, but my dad, until the day he died, would tell me stories about the incredible coral reefs. Living coral was about 60 percent at that time. Today, it's somewhere between 2 and 5 percent," Crosby says.

"These coral reefs are not going to recover on their own. We have so insulted -- by both anthropogenically produced and natural disaster -- the coral reefs in the Florida Keys and around the world that they are literally on the brink of extinction."

As Mote celebrates its 65th year in 2020, Crosby says the institution stands on the three pillars of passion, partnership, and philanthropy to serve its researchers tackling the most urgent issues threatening world oceans -- among them, a rapidly diminishing coral reef ecosystem.

Sarasota's marine science institution breaks ground this fall on a 110,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art aquarium, Mote SEA, at Nathan Benderson Park. Mote SEA is scheduled to open in 2023. Relocating Mote's public aquarium, Crosby says, frees up space for marine research and critical care at the City Island campus.

"When we look to the future beyond 2020, we see Mote growing its impact in terms of research, broadening ocean literacy amongst the public, and ensuring there are, indeed, oceans for all. All of our students, K-12, and all schools throughout the region will have science education at the new Mote absolutely free of charge. Every single child has the opportunity to have that experience," he says. 

Crosby notes that the future of the world's oceans depends on young marine scientists like Dr. Erin Muller, a Mote Senior Scientist and Science Director for the Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research and Restoration in Summerland Key, Florida. 

Mote scientists lead coral reef restoration efforts in the Florida Keys

"If you know a little about what's happening to reefs worldwide, it can be a depressing story, but at Mote, we're changing the tides," says Muller. 

Muller oversees approximately 20 staff at Mote's reef research institute in Summerland Key who are working to reseed coral reefs -- which Muller calls "rainforests of the sea" in terms of their biodiversity and ecosystemic value.

Coral reefs protect shorelines, provide novel compounds that combat cancer and drug-resistant bacteria, and are a food source for at least 1 billion people worldwide. In Florida alone, reefs draw 16 million visitors per year and support over 70,000 local jobs, contributing at least $8 billion to the state economy -- but they're disappearing, rapidly.

"For decades since the 1950s, we've been seeing this really dramatic decline of coral reefs. … Instead of watching this decline happen further, Mote is coming up with innovative ways to recover that coral over time," Muller says. 

One of these techniques involves growing different varieties of coral -- such as the branching, tree-like Staghorn coral and the slower-growing, bulbous Brain and Boulder coral varieties -- in lab nurseries, to outplant in the wild. This process, developed by Mote scientists, is called micro-fragmenting and reskinning.

"We pioneered an effort to overcome the biology of coral. We take a piece of coral -- something as big as a dinner plate to as small as a three-centimeter puck -- and we micro-fragment that piece with a bandsaw and super-glue it onto ceramic discs. It's a thin veneer of tissue with a bit of skeleton underneath. This process accelerates the growth rate so these corals grow about 50 times faster. … We can get a lot more coral tissue accumulating at a faster rate than if we left corals up to their own devices," Muller says.

Mote scientists are committed to information-sharing with scientists across the globe

Mote scientists now have over 20,000 coral fragments in the nursery at any given time, representing 17 species and over 7,000 genotypes. Muller's team created 25,000 outplants in 2020 -- a number she projects to increase in the future while maintaining a higher-than 95% longterm survival rate. To accomplish this, she says, Mote's research also focuses on genetic resilience.

"We don't want to lose our corals to a warm-water ocean event, disease, or changing water chemistry. We can make highly genetically diverse, temperature-tolerant, disease-resistant babies that are more robust to environmental change."

Muller also announced that a living coral gene bank is scheduled to open in October at Mote's aquaculture park in Sarasota.

"Other regions around the world will be able to integrate their species diversity into a living safe haven that is hardened through repeated backup energy and water sources. … It can be a place where a natural disaster can happen in the wild, and you still have the corals with the genetic and species diversity to re-populate those reefs through restoration practices," Muller says.

In an age of social distancing, Crosby and Muller emphasized that Mote scientists are committed to exploring the best methods for information-sharing with scientists across the globe through webinars, videos, and other virtual avenues.

"This community in southwest Florida has grown over 65 years into a global powerhouse for science, conservation, sustainable oceans, and helping to educate millions of people -- here and around the world -- about our connection to our oceans," Crosby says.

"We're committed to being on the frontlines for sustainability and conservation. For generations, we've been taking from the sea. Now, it's time to give back."

Learn more about Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium and how to make a donation to support research.
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Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

Jessi Smith (she/they) is a freelance writer who is passionate about sustainability, community building, and the power of the arts and transformative storytelling. A fourth-generation Floridian, Jessi received her B.A. in Art History and English from Florida International University and began reporting for 83 Degrees in 2009. When she isn't writing, Jessi enjoys taking her deaf rescue dog on outdoors adventures, unearthing treasures in backroads antiques and thrift shops, D.I.Y. upcycling projects, and Florida-friendly gardening.