Coral reefs are unique natural treasures. In general, coral reefs cover less than 1% of the ocean floor but support about 25% of marine life. However, coral reefs around the world are declining due to climate change—including increasing temperatures and ocean acidification—along with coral disease, pollution, overfishing and other stressors.

Florida’s Coral Reef—which stretches almost 350 miles from the Dry Tortugas to the St. Lucie Inlet—provides more than $8 billion economic impact, attracting visitors, protecting coastlines from major storms and supporting diverse life including fisheries. However, Florida’s Coral Reef has lost all but 25 of its living coral cover in recent decades and is struggling to survive amid growing environmental pressures. Today, the major disease outbreak known as stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD) is one of the most urgent and devastating challenges for brain, maze, boulder, star, pillar and other slow-growing corals that form the very foundations of Florida’s Coral Reef.

Science-based coral reef restoration

Mote Marine Laboratory’s Coral Reef Restoration Program develops and applies science-based strategies with the goal of restoring depleted coral reefs in our lifetime. Specifically, Mote researchers are working to optimize restoration using diverse coral genotypes (genetic varieties), prioritizing native genetic varieties that can resist SCTLD and other stressors such as increased water temperatures and ocean acidification.

These critical efforts are based at Mote’s Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research & Restoration (IC2R3) on Summerland Key, Florida. Mote scientists cultivate diverse corals for restoration and research in IC2R3’s land-based coral nurseries and in underwater nurseries where corals are grown on PVC “trees.”

All together, Mote’s nurseries are raising:

  • More than 46,000 coral colonies
  • 17 coral species
  • More than 1,600 genotypes (genetic varieties within species)

Since 2008, Mote scientists have planted more than 76,000 corals of several native species and genotypes to restore depleted reefs.

About 80% of the coral genotypes in Mote’s care were produced by Mote scientists through assisted sexual reproduction events—strategic breeding of native corals to produce new offspring that can supply healthy genetic diversity to restored populations. (Read stories about our sexual reproduction efforts with threatened native species: elkhorn and staghorn corals.)

In the wild, coral sexual cycles are becoming disrupted and failing altogether in some locations and for some species, which has serious implications for the survival and long-term persistence of natural and restored populations. Sexual reproduction provides the next generation of genetically diverse coral offspring that can replenish depleted adult populations and disperse to establish new reefs. Genetic diversity, powered by sex, is a safety net that promotes population resilience by providing a buffer against environmental change and the flexibility to adapt. When sexual reproduction breaks down, so does that safety net, just when corals need it most—during these times of increasing environmental stress.

Recognizing this challenge, Mote scientists carry out every step essential for resilient coral reef restoration, including: coral sexual reproduction; 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; and raising corals to maturity to start the process again.

Science-based reef restoration is central to Mote's Florida Keys Coral Disease Response & Restoration Initiative, which aims to help coral reefs recover from SCTLD and other serious challenges. Mote is co-leading a Restoration Trials Team within the multi-partner response to the disease outbreak. (Read about the important role of restoration for the future of Florida's reefs in this 2019 article, and read about Mote's peer-reviewed research on SCTLD in this 2020 article.)

Mote's coral reef restoration efforts are made possible through collaboration with partners such as NOAA's Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and others.

Mote’s IC2R3 hosts the work of multiple Mote scientists and our collaborators from around the world.

  • To support Mote's coral reef research and restoration with a donation, please contact Mote's Director of Development, Andria Piekarz, apiekarz@mote.org, 941-388-4441, ext. 352.
  • For Mote internship opportunities with multiple programs and campuses, visit: mote.org/internship.
  • To volunteer for Mote's Coral Reef Restoration Program, please fill out this form.
  • Learn more about Mote's Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research & Restoration (IC2R3) at: mote.org/ic2r3.

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