A new onshore coral nursery brings a new kind of reef restoration to Key Largo.
Community leaders and Mote Marine Laboratory staff gathered August 11 at the Reefhouse Resort & Marina to celebrate Mote’s second satellite nursery in the Upper Keys. In May 2021, the marine research and conservation organization completed its first land-based nursery on the grounds of the famous Bud ‘N Mary’s Marina in Islamorada.
Scientific restoration efforts at Mote in the Florida Keys date back decades. To date, Mote has planted over 140,000 coral fragments on the Florida Coral Reef, with a survival rate of over 90% in most cases. Additionally, several thousand corals grow at Mote’s land-based nurseries in Summerland Key and Islamorada, as well as Mote’s two underwater nurseries in the Lower Keys.
Michael Crosby, President and CEO of Mote, told community leaders at the recent groundbreaking ceremony that a new facility at Reefhouse is huge for coral reefs and the community of Key Largo.
“Residents here in the Keys understand the importance of these coral reefs,” he said. “You understand in your garden what is important and how these reefs relate to all aspects of life. Without these coral reefs, the Keys do not exist.
Land-based nurseries such as the one located at Reefhouse offer a more integrated approach to reef restoration. Some native coral species, such as elkhorn coral, grow faster after fragmentation on land compared to fragmentation in water.
Mote said in-water nurseries will still be used to grow other important coral species. Restoration on land and in water provides Mote with a unique advantage to pursue its resilience-based restoration along the Florida coral reef.
Concerned about the fate of the reefs, Crosby traveled to Tallahassee in 2014 to convince state leaders that investing in coral restoration was a priority not only for the Keys and South Florida, but also for the state. Crosby needed a legislator to champion the initiative. That’s when he had the chance to speak with State Rep. Holly Merrill Raschein for about 10 minutes during a busy session.
“The staff said if you could be near that door, she’s in there. You only have two minutes. Make your case. She came out and she gave me 10 minutes,” he said. “When I spoke to her, her eyes lit up. She believed what we were talking about. I knew that not only Mote, but our coral reefs had found their champion in Tallahassee.
On August 12, Crosby and Merrill Raschein joined Mote researchers aboard the Rainbow Reef dive boat to implant the first 50 elkhorn corals and 50 staghorn corals at French Reef.
“The fact that they can do what they did in the Lower Keys here in Key Largo, where there’s so much reef action and diving, I’m thrilled,” she said. declared.
Crosby said Mote was looking for a site with excellent water quality and plenty of space in Key Largo. More importantly, Crosby said they needed a philanthropically visionary landowner. Crosby said Mark Walsh, owner of Key Largo’s Reefhouse and the Opal Collection, recognized Mote’s leadership and his scientific restoration. Walsh pledged the property and $1.5 million to meet the coral restoration response.
Walsh’s family business began in the 1970s when his father purchased the Holiday Inn in Marathon. Walsh also owns Pier B in Key West. After hearing claims that cruise ships were affecting the reef, Walsh set out to do some research. He eventually found himself on Crosby’s doorstep.
“I thought if these reefs were above ground and everyone could see them dying before your eyes, the money that Crosby was talking about, for me in a state like this, should be easy to raise,” did he declare. “We thought it was a great cause. We asked him what he needed. And we were all on board.
With the nursery up and running, Sarah Hamlyn, Mote’s senior biologist, said they would focus on propagating the coral and establishing an offshore nursery. Hamlyn said French Reef was once a good habitat for elkhorn and staghorn species.
“These are really great corals for fish habitat,” Hamlyn said. “Elkhorn is also a hardy coral that helps build the reef.”
During the ceremony, State Representative Jim Mooney presented Crosby with a check for one million dollars. The funds were secured during the 2021-22 legislative session in Tallahassee. Mooney said it wouldn’t have been possible without the help of State Senator Ana Maria Rodriguez.