By Lisa D. Mickey

Seeing is believing and adult students in Marine Discovery Center’s Marine Habitat Restoration class got that opportunity recently when they traveled to the Florida Keys for field studies.

Offered by MDC for the third year as a special topics class in the Florida Master Naturalist Program, the students spent two days snorkeling and seeing coral and sponge restoration efforts up close with visits to Mote Marine Laboratory in Summerland Key and FWC’s South Florida Regional Lab in Marathon. They learned how restoration is implemented, managed and monitored by each facility — boarding boats for field trips each day to observe restoration in progress.

Students observed that coral had been cut into smaller pieces by scientists at Mote Marine Lab and epoxyed onto discs to be grown in a lab setting. Once the coral cuttings had grown, they were then outplanted onto living natural reefs and monitored throughout maturation.

Coral cuttings growing in the nursery at Mote Marine Lab
Students were shown the entire restoration process at Mote before boarding a boat from Big Pine Key to snorkel and view a natural reef with an area of coral currently being restored. Students could see coral restoration on the seafloor 20 feet below in the clear water.

They also learned that Mote’s lab enables scientists to manipulate different water conditions — such as salinity and water temperature — to determine how corals respond to changes in their natural habitat.

The second day at Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) focused on sponge habitats in south Florida and the challenges facing that species. Students learned that while sponges may be the simplest form of life on earth, they are immensely valuable to the coastal ecosystem because of the amount of filtering they provide in coastal waters.

Sponges also serve as habitat for crabs, lobsters and snapping shrimp. When environmental factors impact Florida’s six predominant sponge species and they are lost, the cohabiting animals disappear.

Just as corals have been adversely affected by record 95-degree water temperatures, sponges also have succumbed to intolerable conditions. Cyanobacteria blooms have wiped out many of Florida’s sponge communities since 2013.

Naturalist student holds a large vase sponge
Students had the opportunity to participate in hands-on sponge restoration during their visit. Boats transported the students to a live sponge community where they were instructed to snorkel to the bottom and bring up living sponges to the boats.

Other students remained on the boats, working alongside the scientists. They were instructed how to slice the harvested sponges into smaller pieces, which were zip-tied onto bricks and pavers. The sponge-tied bricks then were returned by snorkeling students to the ocean floor, where the sponges will grow and continue to be monitored by FWC scientists.

Both laboratory facilities also look at animals that share the coral and sponge habitats. Long-spined urchins (Diadema), fish, lobsters and snapping shrimp make those habitats home. When the coral and sponges disappear due to impacted water conditions, so do the animals that live there.

Tiny long spined sea urchin
Prior to the trip to south Florida, the class also discussed artificial reefs and kayaked out to view restoration of seagrass, which has been plagued by poor water quality in the Indian River Lagoon for more than a decade. Students learned how MDC will launch its own on-site restoration project for seagrass and shellfish later this year.

But the overall takeaway for students in the Marine Habitat Restoration class was the difficulty of and need for restoration, as well as the serious ecosystem challenges of extreme ocean water temperatures and bacterial blooms. Coral and sponge communities both have dramatically declined in recent years, giving students a greater understanding of how restoration is largely attempting to stay a step ahead of devastation.