Hurricane Ian? Fuhgeddaboudit! Mote is not stopping to save Florida’s Coral Reef

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

nothing.

“We were able to continue all our operations there and our facility in the Keys was not damaged,” said Stephannie Kettle, spokeswoman for Sarasota’s Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium. “And we’re continuing our efforts to restore reefs throughout the Florida Keys.”

A few days before landfall, the incoming tropical system had caught the attention of the Mote staff in the Keys before it crossed Cuba because no one knew where it would go.

And for good reason. Hurricane Ian continued to ravage Fort Myers Beach, stripping barrier islands — not just of buildings, but of much of its flora and fauna.

After sea turtle researchers at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation found all but one of 18 nests full of eggs that had not yet hatched, ecologists on the barrier islands are trying to determine if the gopher turtle population is drowning in their nests en masse.

It will take months, if not longer, for local residents, coastal communities, Everglades nonprofit groups, and state and federal agencies to gauge Ian’s environmental damage in South Florida.

Meanwhile, the marine scientists and coral restoration experts who never stop working in Mote’s coral reef labs are people no one needs to check.

Since 2000, those scientists have grown many corals at the Elizabeth Moore International Coral Reef Research and Restoration Center on Summerland Key, helping to restore more than 173,000 coral plants to Florida’s Great Barrier Reef.

Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium

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Coral reef restorers are replanting a diseased section of the Coral Reef near Key Largo, Florida.

As Ian side-swiped Summerland Key on his way to southwest Florida, the Mote coral crew was holding a conference to teach other scientists reef restoration techniques, Kettle said.

On Wednesday, Kettle said the work of Mote reef experts was continuing as usual.

Reef disease is more dangerous than a hurricane

Florida’s coral reefs are under attack from a seemingly insurmountable combination of man-made and natural attackers. That’s why Mote built such a presence on the islands of southern Monroe County.

More than 350 miles long, Florida’s Great Barrier Reef stretches from Dry Tortugas National Park, about 70 miles west of Key West, to St. It stretches 350 miles up the east coast to Lucie Inlet. This is the same distance from Fort Myers to the Bahamas.

This reef contains more than 40 species of corals that provide shelter, food and nursery and breeding grounds for millions of ocean-based plants and animals.

Challenges facing all things natural trying to develop along developed coastlines have been difficult and ongoing since humans began to settle along Florida’s coast: Rampant, unrelenting, coastal development means more homes and businesses almost atop cliffs in places. Burning fossil fuels for energy releases carbon dioxide, which returns to the surface and makes seawater more acidic. Overfishing strips the reef of its biodiversity and leaves behind tangled nets, boat anchors and tons of trash.

However, the biggest environmental threat to a Florida coral reef is stony coral tissue loss disease, which appears as white spots where it consumes the bright colors known as live coral and leaves behind a shiny, white coral skeleton.

The National Park Service said in a statement that the contagious, water-borne disease was discovered in corals in Dry Tortugas National Park last summer.

“Until now, Dry Tortugas National Park was the only part of Florida’s Coral Reef that did not show signs of the disease,” said Pedro Ramos, Superintendent of Everglades and Dry Tortugas National Parks. “It’s important to catch it early because, left untreated, the disease has the potential to destroy the park’s underwater gardens, as affected corals have a near 100% mortality rate.”

The parks service said coral tissue loss disease is now known to be present on Florida’s Great Barrier Reef and beyond, an “unprecedented” outbreak of widespread, long-term, mass coral death and the large number of species the disease can devastate.

Fish starters

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

At the time, Mote scientists said the 77 tons of fish were just the first in a grand plan to harvest a variety of marine life in Florida’s then-burgeoning aquaculture industry. Despite a terrible fire at the fish farm off Fruitville Road a few years later (it was rebuilt), time proved this scene to be a coincidence.

Fast forward to 1993. It was then that Mote first established the coral reef research station at Pigeon Key in Monroe County.

After five years of success, the lab was recognized nationally as a leader in its field, and scientists involved in various aspects of reef reclamation and restoration became regulars.

In 1998, the inactive Hurricane Georges destroyed the laboratory.

Two years later, the coral laboratory was re-established on nearby Summerland Key. Mote has since opened two more onshore coral nurseries in hurricane-prone Islamora and Key Largo.

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

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