On Monday, World Oceans Day, coral restoration took center stage in Islamorada. With the announcement of two innovative partnerships, the Upper Keys village is poised to become a new hub of coral restoration in the Keys.
Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium kicked off the announcements, with president and CEO Michael P. Crosby saying, “The Islamorada community has a rich history of world-class fishing, diving and ocean recreation and in many ways is the heartland of the Florida Keys. Mote is honored to establish Islamorada’s first science-based coral nursery as part of our broader strategic reef restoration and science education mission.”
Mote plans to build a land-based coral nursery ‒ the first of its kind in Islamorada ‒ on the beach at Bud n’ Mary’s Marina. The new coral nursery will supplement Mote’s in-water Looe Key and land-based Summerland Key nurseries.
The new nursery partnership will focus restoration efforts on Cheeca Rocks, a prominent reef near Islamorada and one of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) seven “iconic reefs.” The goal of the massive undertaking is to bring the coral reefs back to healthy coral coverage through targeted coral restoration efforts like the new nursery in Islamorada.
Crosby reminded the audience that a $6 billion economy and 72,000 jobs in the Keys are built on the coral reefs, before reminiscing on the 60 percent living coral cover he enjoyed in the Keys as a kid. Today, that cover is less than 5 percent because “we’ve done everything we can in the ensuing decades to assault the reefs,” he said.
“Our reefs are in trouble. They won’t recover on their own. Innovative science is the way out, … but we also need significant community involvement,” Crosby said. “That’s why we’re here today.”
Sarah and Nick Stanczyk, representing the legendary Bud n’ Mary’s Marina, said they were “proud to partner.” Sarah, who is pregnant with the couple’s second child, especially noted that she wants her kids to be able to jump in the water and see coral.
In the second partnership reveal of the day, Michael Goldberg and Kylie Smith announced their new citizen-science restoration organization, Islamorada Conservation and Restoration Education(I.CARE).
Goldberg, the lead and co-founder, also owns Key Dives at Bud n’ Mary’s Marina. A self-proclaimed “coral person,” he was catalyzed to act by the deadly stony coral tissue loss disease that has ravaged Florida’s coral reef.
“I’ve been diving these reefs for 20-something years, and in the last few, I’ve heard them crying out,” an emotional Goldberg said. “It’s hard to talk about because I know what I used to see. I want to say to our reefs, ‘We hear your cry, and we’re gonna do something about it.’”
The National Marine Sanctuaries Foundation is I.CARE’s fiscal sponsor, but Islamorada businesses are also putting some skin in the game. Dive and snorkel shops and fishing charters voluntarily donate $1 to $2 per customer to I.CARE or a percentage of their revenue. Hotels contribute anywhere from $0.25 to $2 per room per night. Restaurants and the Islamorada Village Council are also considering making donations or matches.
“Every business down here needs a healthy reef,” Goldberg emphasized. “It’s not a contract, but a commitment they make to I.CARE.”
I.CARE takes a community-based approach to coral restoration. The organization is partnering with local dive shops and Mote to “transform visitors into volunteer divers with a hands-on experience in restoration,” Goldberg said. Divers will take part in coral restoration and monitoring to bring the reef back with their own two hands. The land-based nursery at Bud n’ Mary’s Marina will provide the corals.
Smith, the project manager and co-founder of I.CARE, will oversee the science behind the community-driven effort to restore the reefs. The year-round restoration will be conducted under permits from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which Smith anticipated receiving in the next few weeks.
“The reason what Mote is doing is working is because of the science behind it. They’re taking the corals that have been able to survive the bad conditions – high temps, acidity, pollution – and those are the corals they’re trying to reproduce or microfragment, and then they’re putting them through additional experiments for pH and temperature for what we think will be out there in 10 years,” Smith said. “Now, I.CARE is going to build off what Mote is doing, here in Islamorada. I’m excited.”
Smith explained how the coral transplanting changed her and how she hopes to affect citizen-divers. She said, “You become invested! The ones that survive, you fight for. The ones that don’t, you cry for. It becomes a very personal experience. It changed my life, and it’s hard to go back to anything else.”
Crosby concluded with a quote from Bill Mote, the namesake of Mote: “We’ve taken from the sea for generations. Now, it’s time to give back.”
Mote’s President & CEO Michael P. Crosby shares the past, present, and future of coral restoration at Mote, as they announce Islamorada’s new coral restoration project. MOTE MARINE LABORATORY/Contributed