A free event is planned for Sunday, March 29 that honors the biggest attraction in the Florida Keys – the coral reef.
“Ocean recreation and tourism is responsible for 33,000 jobs in Monroe County,” said National Marine Sanctuary Superintendent Sean Morton. “That is 58 percent of our local economy and $2.3 billion in annual sales.”
Morton said a majority of the revenues generated from the Keys’ coral reef come from fishing and the rest derives from snorkel trips, jet-ski tours, kayak trips, diving and all the related industries such as lodging and merchandise.
“The basis of our economy and life in the Keys is what goes on in the water,” said Mote Marine’s Florida Keys Development Officer Jason Wolf. “Ocean Fest is just a great day to learn why it is so wonderful here and everything the ocean offers us.”
Wolf said that while Florida and the Caribbean have lost more than 90 percent of its indigenous coral coverage in the past 40 years – new discoveries are being at Mote Marine Lab to help restore coral reefs.
And fundraising through grants, private donations, and the “Protect our Reefs” license plates, along with events like the Florida Key Ocean Festival are advancing the restoration of the coral reef.
In the five years since Wolf founded the event, the Ocean Festival has more than tripled. The first year saw about 20 booths and 100 guests. Last year they estimated the crowd at about 7,500 guests. Organizers already have more than 100 booths committed to this year’s event including local, state and federal environmental organizations like NOAA, Florida Fish and Wildlife, Mote and the Turtle Hospital, to name a few.
Ocean Fest attendees can explore conservation and environmental exhibits from more than 30 organizations, meet live animals and experience touch tanks, view and purchase wares from more than 70 local marine artists and vendors, rock to the sounds of Howard Livingston and Mile Marker 24 Band and other musicians, vie for a variety of prizes, and bid on silent auction items and original works of art by celebrated marine artist Wyland.
He will first paint with the kids at 1 p.m. and then create additional works to be auctioned off at later in the day
“It’s a chance to own an original Wyland, painted live, right in front of you, while helping to support the future of our oceans” said Wolf.
Other highlights include a free fishing seminar for kids ages 5 to 11 that features instruction, barge fishing and free rods and reels to the first 100 participants. (Youngsters must register online at keysoceanfest.org.)
Proceeds and donations from the festival and 5K Race for the Reef are to support Mote Marine Laboratory’s coral reef restoration and research programs.
“Our coral reef system is under the water and sometimes, out of sight is out of mind,” Wolf said. “Coral reefs are responsible for supporting as much as 40 percent of all marine life on the planet. And yet coral reefs cover less than 1 percent of the earth surface. That is an important relationship to understand, especially with the world’s rdthird largest living reef system right in our backyards. ”
• The 5k Tuna Trot Race for the Reef is to be held in conjunction with the festival, offering a competitive challenge that supports the Keys’ undersea world.
• A silent auction includes items like Disney tickets, fishing gear, art, hotel stays, fishing trips, rare coins and gift certificates.
• Kids “Passport to Healthy Ocean” visiting all the environmental agencies will be entered in a contest, for free, to win a trip for four aboard the Fury “Island Adventure.”
• Local vendors will be serving ocean treats including sustainably-raised conch delicacies from the Bahamas.