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Mote Works with Combat Wounded Veterans, Our Town Sarasota News Events

Mote Works with Combat Wounded Veterans

Sarasota News Events:

Mote Marine Laboratory welcomed thirteen members of the Combat Wounded Veterans Challenge (CWVC) to its Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research & Restoration (IC2R3) in the Florida Keys for a historic outplanting initiative and groundbreaking research project.

Combat-wounded and injured veterans with various types of injuries, including traumatic brain injuries, transtibial (below the knee), and transfemoral (above the knee) amputations, as well as many other combat-related injuries, participated in the new initiative. Many of the CWVC participants were able to dive alongside Mote scientists with specialized waterproof prosthetics, some of which have been developed from research conducted during prior years’ joint Mote-CWVC missions.

“This mission holds profound personal significance for me, as it represents not only the vital work of coral reef restoration but also the profound honor of collaborating with combat-wounded veterans,” said Dr. Michael P. Crosby, President & CEO of Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium. “Witnessing their resilience, dedication, and camaraderie in the face of adversity is a humbling reminder of the strength and spirit that define both our marine conservation efforts and those who have selflessly sacrificed so much in service to our country. Together, we are not only restoring coral reefs but also fostering hope for a brighter future.”

The event, marking the 13th year of collaboration between Mote and CWVC, saw a record-breaking coral reef restoration effort, underscoring the organizations’ commitments to marine habitat restoration and innovative scientific research. The joint endeavor not only aimed to restore coral reefs but also to advance understanding of new restoration techniques at targeted out planting sites.

The CWVC divers, along with Mote staff, accomplished remarkable feats, including the production or “fragging” (scientifically breaking apart coral pieces to promote accelerated growth) of 4,538 coral micro fragments, and setting 30 new anchors for coral trees in Mote’s underwater coral nursery at Looe Key. In addition, CWVC participants set a new single-day production record for Mote by producing 2,003 new coral microfragments. Dr. Crosby also joined with the CWVC divers and other Mote staff to outplant 1,234 corals in just one day.

This year’s initiative aimed to capitalize on the drive, motivation, and ingenuity of Mote’s CWVC partners to test a novel restoration method at two separate reef sites. “The project is focused on using early successional coral species, sometimes referred to as ‘weedy,’” said Dr. Jason Spadaro, Mote’s Coral Reef Restoration Research Program Manager.  Early successional species are those that initially recolonize an area following a major disturbance (e.g., weeds and grasses following a catastrophic forest fire). Although weedy species have not typically been used in restoration initiatives in the past, Mote scientists are testing their ability to reduce erosion of the reef platform and to jump-start critical ecological processes that may support the survival, growth, reproduction, and recruitment of later successional reef-building coral species.

Under the direction of Dr. Spadaro, this research project will involve repeated outplanting events on discrete plots and then monitoring the outplanted plots, and adjacent control plots, for net accretion (e.g., how much calcium carbonate is deposited as coral skeleton vs. how much is lost to erosional forces) along with many other parameters for several years, with the goal of the high-density outplant plots creating an “erosion veneer” on the reef to jump-start multiple ecological functions and improve restoration outcomes over time.

Moving forward, Mote is proactively preparing to safeguard coral nursery stocks ahead of the coming summer months, especially with the threat of another marine heatwave. Last summer, rising heat, high salinity, extreme solar radiation, and potentially low oxygen conditions presented an unprecedented stress event that took its toll on Florida’s Coral Reef along with coral reefs throughout the wider Caribbean region and around the globe. Surface temperatures are currently hotter than they were at this time last year, and Mote scientists are prepared to respond to another potentially catastrophic marine heatwave. It is possible that the La Niña weather pattern this year will offer some respite with increased trade winds but may exacerbate threats to the reef with a potentially active hurricane season and drought conditions throughout the South.

In anticipation of many potential challenges, Mote scientists have developed comprehensive plans to protect vulnerable coral species. Acroporids, like staghorn corals, will be relocated to Mote’s Upper Keys underwater coral nurseries, potentially out of the path of the worst conditions, where they will be closely monitored throughout the summer months. Mote’s massive form coral species (e.g., boulder, brain, and star corals) will, until signs of thermal stress are observed, remain in underwater nurseries throughout the Florida Keys. At the first sign of substantial thermal stress, these resilient corals will either be shuffled among Mote’s four underwater coral nurseries throughout the Florida Keys or brought in to land to ride out the heatwave in one of Mote’s three state-of-the-art land-based coral nursery facilities in the Florida Keys.

Mote has additionally invested substantially in the development of critical infrastructure at Mote’s Aquaculture Research Park in Sarasota to serve as another option for emergency evacuations of corals in response to a marine heatwave, major hurricanes, or other substantial threats. Mote has more than 40 full-time staff, five dedicated research vessels, and multiple other infrastructure assets among its three Florida Keys campuses standing ready to respond to emergency conditions.

For massive (slow-growing, boulder-like) corals, Mote is prepared to swiftly evacuate tens of thousands of fragments into land-based systems or other in-situ (on-site) nurseries, with IC2R3 expanding its land-based nursery capacity to accommodate an additional 20,000 coral fragments on-site in treated, temperature-controlled seawater systems.

As with last summer’s historic coral evacuation effort, Mote is also capable of immediately mobilizing more than 50 additional staff and multiple other research vessels to assist with any potential evacuations of staff, corals, or infrastructure should the need arise. However, while Mote’s multifaceted strategic plan addresses various potential stress events, the evacuation of corals will only be considered under extreme circumstances, as these operations represent substantial stress on both the coral animals and Mote’s dedicated staff.

As Mote continues its mission to protect and restore coral reefs, partnerships with organizations like CWVC play a crucial role in advancing marine conservation efforts and ensuring the long-term health of our oceans.