In the Spotlight

Fighting to save coral reefs

Coral reefs, our “rainforests of the sea,” are fighting for their lives, and Mote scientists are fighting to save them. In the past year, Mote scientists progressed in their tireless effort to address the unprecedented outbreak of stony coral tissue loss disease that has spread like wildfire throughout Florida’s Coral Reef and certain Caribbean reefs in recent years. Mote’s team also charged forward with longstanding and growing efforts to investigate and respond to climate change impacts—increasing temperature and ocean acidification—that are reshaping and challenging coral reefs worldwide.

Florida’s Coral Reef has lost all but 2% of its living coral in recent decades and is unable to recover and perpetuate itself without assistance. For that reason, science-based coral reef restoration has played an increasingly vital role at Mote—a world-leader in restoration science and application—and in team efforts by the broader scientific community. 



Mote's Coral Restoration in the Florida Keys

  • In early 2019, Mote launched its new Florida Keys Coral Disease Response & Restoration Initiative to accelerate science, infrastructure development and reef restoration to understand and address the unprecedented outbreak of stony coral tissue loss diseases and other major challenges. 

    This multi-partner Initiative involves identifying resilient genetic varieties of coral, preserving native corals in secure gene banks, amplifying coral disease research and boosting science-based reef restoration. Initiative supporters include philanthropic donors, the State of Florida, and Mote’s grant of nearly $1.5 million from the National Coastal Resilience Fund (a partnership of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation*, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Shell Oil Company and TransRe). 

    Specifically, Mote is working with Initiative partners at NOAA, Biscayne National Park, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), The Nature Conservancy and others, to:

    During the 2019 fiscal year, Mote scientists and partners worked to improve the process of screening corals for resistance to disease and other stressors. By exposing corals of known genetic varieties (genotypes) to stressors in the lab for varying time periods, the researchers have been investigating how quickly testing can progress without losing ecologically relevant data. Balancing fast and thorough screening is an important step for applied science to address ecological emergencies such as stony coral tissue loss disease. 

    In lab studies, certain Mote-raised coral genotypes resist stony coral tissue loss disease carried in water, only becoming sick after touching infected corals. At least one Mote-tested genotype of mountainous star coral appears to resist the disease altogether.

    Now, Mote is investigating whether lab-tested corals will continue thriving once planted on the reef—one of many efforts overseen by a Restoration Trials Team co-led by Mote and DEP, with members from NOAA, FWC, U.S. Geological Survey, Nova Southeastern University, Florida Aquarium, The National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy and Coral Restoration Consortium. So far, Mote has documented that less than 10% of the corals outplanted in the recent group show disease signs, even after six months of potential exposure within the diseased reefs.

    *The views and conclusions in this document are those of the authors and do not represent the opinions, views, policies or endorsement of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. 

    • Propagate and/or plant approximately 70,000 coral fragments, emphasizing disease- and stress-resistant genotypes (genetic varieties).

    • Advance research to identify naturally resilient, endemic coral genotypes.

    • Establish a remote, inland, hurricane-resistant coral gene bank at Mote Aquaculture Research Park in eastern Sarasota County, Florida, to preserve threatened coral species and their genetic diversity. 

    • Establish an isolated, “clean room” lab necessary for coral disease research.

    • Implement multi-year monitoring and analyses to scientifically evaluate restoration results.



Mote scientist Dr. Erinn Mullet studies black band coral disease.

  • Research funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and conducted by Mote, NOAA and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) investigated the unknown pathogen(s) causing tissue loss disease, finding a unique bacterial signature in sick corals. It’s not yet clear whether that bacterial signature represents the primary pathogen(s) or a secondary response to other, undetected pathogens. 

    Also this year, Mote scientists studied how the stony coral tissue loss disease has spread over space and time and deepened investigations into the bacterial community of sick corals to assist with identifying putative pathogenic agents, with funding support from the EPA and a state wildlife grant. While many scientists have collected samples of affected corals in the field, at discrete points in time, this experiment followed the process of the disease transmission and progression through time, collecting valuable data under controlled conditions. Findings from this year’s disease-transmission studies are expected in 2020.



Mote scientists assess the health of Florida's coral reefs during the OceanX research expedition.

  • In summer 2019, Mote scientists joined OceanX to assess the health of Florida’s Coral Reef in real time, focusing on stony coral tissue loss disease. This expedition, from Dry Tortugas to Key Biscayne, covered a wider area in a shorter time than any previous survey of Florida’s Coral Reef in the context of tissue loss disease.



Dr. Erinn Muller studies coral health & disease at Mote.

  • In July 2019, Mote’s Dr. Erinn Muller received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) from the U.S. government—honoring her in coral research and restoration leadership, including her work as a primary scientific responder to the major outbreak of stony coral tissue loss disease affecting Florida’s Coral Reef. 

    Muller, who joined Mote as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in 2012, now manages Mote’s Coral Health & Disease Research Program, co-manages Mote’s Coral Reef Restoration Program, and serves as Science Director for Mote’s IC2R3.

    PECASE is the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on outstanding scientists and engineers who are beginning their independent research careers and show exceptional promise for leadership in science and technology.



Dr. Hanna Koch monitors coral spawning at Mote's lab in the Florida Keys.

  • This summer, Dr. Hanna Koch led coral sexual reproduction efforts using Mote’s nursery raised corals in a controlled setting.  This successful effort, which produces genetically diverse coral offspring from well-documented parents, represents a critical link in the chain of Mote’s uniquely comprehensive strategy for science-based coral reef restoration

    Through this project led by Koch, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the German Research Foundation and Visiting Research Scientist with Mote, along with decades of applied research by Mote scientists, Mote’s team can now carry out every step essential for science-based coral reef restoration:

    • Coral sexual reproduction to produce genetically diverse “babies” (larvae)

    • Growing corals from microscopic larvae to adult colonies

    • Producing more colonies through fragmenting corals asexually

    • Testing coral genetic varieties for resilience to disease, climate change and related stressors

    • Planting corals onto damaged reefs

    • Monitoring restored corals to analyze survival and growth, and develop even better restoration methods

    • Conducting managed breeding (controlled sexual reproduction) with nursery-raised corals to produce new, genetically diverse offspring and start the cycle again.



A scuba-diving Mote scientist plants coral fragments to restore a reef in the Florida Keys.

  • When fiscal year 2019 concluded on Sept. 30, Mote scientists were well on their way to a major coral restoration milestone. From January–December 2019, Mote’s team planted nearly 27,000 coral fragments onto damaged Florida reefs, the Lab’s highest annual count ever. 

    Cumulatively, Mote has restored 76,522 coral fragments to wild reefs since 2008, and Mote-restored corals often show exceptional survival rates, with more than 90% of coral fragments reaching the key, one-year mark. Mote scientists’ efforts have thrived with substantial help from volunteer citizen scientists.

    In July 2019, Mote was awarded a competitive, NOAA Restoration Center grant that will help support Mote’s efforts in resilient coral restoration, coral sexual reproduction and the ecological recovery of ecosystem services from restoration efforts over the coming three years.



This year was busy and productive at Mote’s Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research & Restoration (IC2R3) on Summerland Key, Florida. IC2R3 hosted 115 groups including Mote scientists, visiting researchers, and education groups. Groups benefited from Mote’s state-of-the-art facilities including the Alfred Goldstein Institute for Climate Change Studies, along with ready access to Florida’s Coral Reef.

In particular, Mote’s Climate and Acidification Ocean Simulator (CAOS) at IC2R3 hosted 35 groups studying various coral species, sponges, sea urchins, sea slugs, various algae species, lobsters and crabs. During its busiest month, August, the system saw 87% occupancy by eight groups! Most groups plan to publish their research in peer-reviewed journals—during this fiscal year.



Staghorn coral growing in Mote's coral nursery in the Florida Keys.

  • This year, Mote scientists investigated the best methods for growing and restoring threatened staghorn coral in oceans increasingly affected by climate change, with a research grant funded by sales of the Protect Our Reefs license plate ( The team raised some corals on pucks on the bottom, hung others from PVC “trees” in Mote’s nursery and examined their growth and calcification amid ocean acidification (OA) and increased temperature simulated in Mote’s CAOS system. At press time the project was ongoing.



Dr. Emily Hall studies ocean acidification at Mote.

  • This year, Mote’s Dr. Emily Hall took on a new level of leadership in regional efforts to understand and address ocean acidification (OA), as Director of the Science Working Group for the Southeastern Coastal Acidification Network (SOCAN). SOCAN connects scientists, resource managers, industry experts and educators to facilitate research and discussion to address coastal and ocean acidification impacts in the U.S. Southeast. 

    Hall, a Mote staff member since 2005, manages Mote’s Ocean Acidification Research Program and this year took on the management of Mote’s Chemical & Physical Ecology Program. She and her team established the CAOS system, which enables Mote scientists and others from around the world to study coral reef organisms amid simulated climate-change conditions at Mote’s Florida Keys campus, home of the Alfred Goldstein Institute for Climate Change Studies.

    With SOCAN, Hall oversees monthly science working group meetings and SOCAN interactions with other groups, while serving on a committee for the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Acidification Network (GCAN).



A large Caribbean king crab. Photo by John Anderson/Adobe Stock.

  • Mote collaborated with NOAA and College of the Florida Keys to study potential climate change impacts on the largest known crabs in the Caribbean—the coral-reef-dwelling Caribbean king crabs. Study results found relatively moderate decreases in survival of young Caribbean king crabs amid increased temperature and OA, suggesting this species might be resilient to climate change

    Coastal crabs and other crustaceans have shown variable responses to both elevated temperature and OA, often with earlier life stages being less tolerant than later ones. Caribbean king crabs play vital roles on Florida’s coral reefs—their grazing of macroalgae (seaweed) likely helps to clear space for new corals to settle. Their resiliency to elevated temperature and OA suggests that this crab species may be a climate change “winner” with the potential to assist in the future success of new coral recruits.