Lab in Florida Keys lobbies to protect corals

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A nonprofit environmental organization in The Florida Keys is expanding its efforts to save the region’s fragile coral reefs.

The Key West Citizen reported on Saturday that Mote Marine Laboratory has begun a $5 million project to upgrade its research center and coral lab on Summerland Key.

The work is being funded through private donations and grants.

The laboratory is also expanding its work to restore coral reefs through growing corals in nurseries and planting them back on reefs.

Michael Crosby, Mote’s executive director, told the newspaper that the organization also hopes to secure $1 million a year for the next 10 years from Florida legislators to help cover operational costs.

“We have built the infrastructure and the capability to restore corals,” Crosby said. “This is a philanthropic investment. I believe in our ability to restore coral reefs. We think it is a pretty good combination of public and private funds.”

Experts say the Keys coral reef tract is crucial to region’s $2.3 billion annual tourism market and to the state’s commercial seafood industry.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, reef-related tourism supports about 33,000 jobs in the area and accounts for about 58 percent of the region’s economy.

Mote, in partnership with the Nature Conservancy, has reared more than 70,000 elkhorn and staghorn corals at its nursery near Looe Key since it started its program in 2008, said Dave Vaughn, executive director of the Summerland Key lab.