Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota, Fla., is a highly rated tourist attraction where you can bring the kids for a day of meeting fish and having fun. They can view schools of colorful tropical species, interact with marine life in touch tanks, and even (for an extra charge) help feed sharks in the Aquarium’s 135,000-gallon shark habitat.
But many visitors may not realize that, behind the shark tanks and jellyfish displays, is the real Mote – an independent, not-for-profit marine research institution with more than 200 employees, including 30 Ph.D. scientists conducting research in more than 20 fields. These projects range from studying human cancer using marine models to developing technologies that will help us better understand the world’s oceans, to developing sustainable fisheries and preserving endangered marine species. Mote Aquarium, an accredited member of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), ties all its exhibits to its real-world scientific research, ensuring that visitors leave the building better educated about the marine environment than they were when they came in.
Mote Marine got its start in 1955 in a tiny shed on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Today, it has grown to the point where it occupies five facilities, including the new 19,000-sq.ft. Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research & Restoration on Summerland Key in the Florida Keys, which opened in 2017. The ambitious goal of the research teams operating out of this state-of-the-art Center is to restore 10,000 underwater acres of the Keys’ embattled coral reef in the next decade. This is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg, however; Mote has partnerships with other scientific institutions that are repopulating reefs elsewhere in Florida and in the Caribbean.
One of the teams located in the Keys, led by Erich Bartels, Mote program manager of coral reef monitoring and assessment, focuses its scientific efforts on repopulating the reef with staghorn and elkhorn corals – known as “branching corals” due to their tree-like limbs.
“In 2006, elkhorn and staghorn coral were the first corals to be listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act,” said Bartels. Engineered by evolution to break off when a storm hits the reef, the tips of these coral branches will roll down the reef and re-plant themselves at the bottom. Marine scientists have learned that this form of “asexual reproduction” is possible to imitate in the field. “It really lends itself to doing it on purpose,” he said.
Bartels’ team harvests coral tips and then plants them in two underwater aquafarms.
“Eventually they grow big enough that we can plant them out on the reef,” he said.
This type of coral reef repopulation will not be successful if the team simply grows and replants pieces of genetically identical coral, however.
“Coral can’t all be clones of the same genome. We want to plant diversified strains so that when it gets big enough it will reproduce on its own,” Bartels said, adding that mature elkhorn and staghorn coral sexually reproduce during “one magic night” each year. Enhancing the reef’s coral population with diversified strains will ensure its survival long after the scientists have moved on.
Bartels and his team members spend most of their time in the water; in fact, he said, “My team of three does sixty percent of all the diving at Mote – about a thousand dives a year.” The rest of their day is spent in boats running between dive sites and their two aquafarms, one of which is off Summerland Key. The other is off Key West.
“We work in a thirty-five-mile range,” he said. The team’s primary research vessel is a 25-foot Parker called the R/V Lady Lynne, donated to Mote by an environmentally active couple named Lynne and Chip Shotwell. Lady Lynne and two other vessels used by the scientists are powered by twin Mercury Verado 200hp outboards donated to Mote Marine Laboratory by Mercury Marine.
“We’ve had Lady Lynne for fifteen years, and she’s gone through three sets of engines,” Bartels said of the Verado outboards. “These are by far the most reliable engines we’ve had, and we’re out year-round in all conditions. Without reliable engines on our boat, our project may not have had the success it has had.”
Last September, Bartels’ reef restoration project suffered a real blow when Hurricane Irma hit the Florida Keys.
“We lost about ninety-five percent of our nursery off Summerland Key,” he said. Luckily, the second aquafarm was spared. Despite this setback, he said, “We’re repopulating close to 50,000 corals per year.”
For more information on Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium, please visit mote.org.