Coral Reefs

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Photo: © Tim Calver

Long-lived, slow-growing structures found throughout tropical seas worldwide, living coral reefs are some of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet and home to as much as 40 percent of all marine species. However, the intricate patchworks of delicate, brightly lit coral communities that form a much larger ecosystem can only thrive in areas with specific environmental conditions. Because corals require warm, clear and shallow waters to survive, less than one percent of the ocean’s seafloor is occupied by coral communities. As insignificant as these living structures might appear, they provide life for a majority of the ocean’s inhabitants. Unfortunately, coral reefs are under assault and declining at major rates around the world as a result of disease, climate change, and direct and indirect human interaction.

Without any genetic alterations, corals are grown in open-ocean and land-based nurseries where they are studied and observed.

While Florida is blessed with the only living reef system within the continental United States, local reefs have experienced widespread damage that will take decades to recover, while some many never rebound. The damage is so extensive that two of Florida’s indigenous species—elkhorn and staghorn corals—were designated threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 2006. In 2008 these branching corals were listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species.

Fortunately, researchers from The Mote Marine Laboratory, The Coral Restoration Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, and NOAA are on their way to the most significant coral reef restoration project in existence as they develop methods to rescue, grow and replant coral reef species throughout Florida and the Caribbean. Jason Wolf of Mote Marine’s Tropical Research Lab tells us that that in the last 40 years, we’ve lost more than 90 percent of many indigenous coral communities in the Florida Keys.

“It has come to a point where coral spawning and breeding can’t keep up with the mortality rate. With these living structures unable to support the continued reproduction of the species, it’s uncertain what the future holds. Without help, it doesn’t look promising. Coinciding with the loss of corals, a cornerstone species of the reef community was also wiped out, which further reinforced the downfall of precious coral communities. Spiny sea urchins are the gardeners of the seafloor and as a result of what is believed to be a lethal bacteria or pathogen, we lost 95 percent of our long spined urchin populations in the early 1980s. When corals spawn, they need relatively clean, hard surfaces to settle on and grow, but with the loss of sea urchins a majority of the reef tract was overgrown with algae,” continued Wolf.

In an effort to protect and preserve existing coral communities in Florida and beyond, researchers at Mote are focused on monitoring, observing and understanding the factors that influence their health. This reef restoration program is also developing breakthrough techniques to farm coral reef species. When the program started, researchers were granted permits in partnership with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to rescue and study natural coral fragments from damaged and decimated coral reefs.

From here the surviving coral fragments were taken to Mote Marine Laboratory’s Tropical Research Lab in Summerland Key, which serves as a base of operations for scientists studying coral growth and development. Without any genetic alterations, corals are grown in open-ocean and land-based nurseries where they are studied and observed. The growing corals are then fragmented every 60 to 90 days, meaning they are deliberately cut, or broken to reproduce free-living clones of the parent corals. With this process scientists can replicate more corals in a nursery setting than what could ever happen with natural coral growth. A single piece of healthy coral can be fragmented many times and the project partners collectively have more than 25,000 growing fragments ready to be transplanted back onto the reef.

“In the wild it would take 10, 50, or 100 years or more for reefs to recover. With our research and developments we’ve been able to successfully jump-start the recovery process. While some corals are planted on cinderblocks or cement stands, others are strung-up to hang in the water column so we can see if growth rates are similar to the corals that are affixed to the substrate. Once coral fragments reach a certain size they are then transferred to damaged reefs where they are attached with a non-toxic adhesive,” added Wolf.

The first planting of 100 staghorn fragments flourished to more than 3,000 corals destined for dead and damaged reef tracts off the Keys. These damaged reefs are chosen as planting sites because of certain environmental and water characteristics that maximize the coral’s likelihood of successful reproduction. Currently, scientists at Mote are replanting Keys reefs with 50 to 100 fragments a day depending on weather conditions and time of year. The big picture is to restore the South Florida reef tract, which extends 240 miles from The Dry Tortugas north to Ft. Lauderdale. While the program’s main focus is on branching staghorn corals, there are also new nurseries at Mote using cutting edge aquaculture processes to grow reef building species like star and brain corals.

“We’ve found that star and brain corals can be hyperenergized to compete for space, meaning as juveniles they must grow quickly to survive. By planting three to five coral polyps close together we’ve seen incredible growth rates in 18 to 36 months that might normally take 20, 50, or 100 years or more in the wild,” Continued Wolf.

As a Florida angler coral reefs have a huge impact and significance, with as much as 40 percent of all life in the ocean depending on coral reefs at one point in their life cycle. While there is still much to be accomplished, continued efforts will benefit coral communities worldwide and hopefully reverse their decline. Mote and its research partners are attempting an incredible effort to rescue reefs in Florida and beyond, but it won’t be an easy undertaking.

In addition to grant funding, a major source of coral reef restoration funding comes from the Protect Our Reef license plate, with $25 going to Mote for each license plate sold. To support the cause visit and proudly display the only license plate that helps fund coral reef restoration and a better future for fishing in Florida and beyond. See you on the water!