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Mote SEA: a new chapter for Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium

New facility will be home to world-class research and conservation education

Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium is an independent, nonprofit marine research institution on City Island in Sarasota, Florida. It comprises world-class marine scientists, who are committed to the belief that the conservation and sustainable use of our oceans begins with research and education. Soon, it will be opening a new facility, Mote Science Education Aquarium (Mote SEA)

Originally focused on sharks, Mote’s remit has since expanded to include studies of human cancer using marine models, the effects of human-made and natural toxic substances on humans and on the environment, the health of wild fisheries, developing sustainable and successful fish restocking techniques and food production technologies and the development of ocean technology to help us better understand the health of the environment.

Research programmes focus on matters such as understanding the population dynamics of manatees, dolphins, sea turtles, sharks and coral reefs, and on the conservation and restoration efforts related to these species and ecosystems.

Mote SEA is currently under construction at Nathan Benderson Park. This is the rebirth of Mote’s public aquarium on the mainland. It will amplify the institution’s ability to provide informal science education and enhanced levels of ocean literacy to a much larger and more diverse population from around the world.

A lifelong interest in marine conservation

Dr. Michael Crosby Mote

Dr Michael P. Crosby has been President & CEO of Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, an independent research institution that has been a leader in marine research for 60 years, since 2013. Before this, he also served for three years as Mote’s Senior Vice President for Research. 

Crosby has spent over 30 years in research, teaching, science management and leadership, developing and conducting multi-disciplinary research through involvement with universities, science and resource management agencies, programs and committees. He has played a significant role in leading national and international research programmes and developing national policy for science programs.

His interest in marine science and conservation began, he says, on the day he was born:

“I was born on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico here in Florida. Weeks later, we moved to Key West, and my father enjoyed diving on the coral reefs. Back in those days, around 1960, the Florida Keys had about 60% living coral cover. I was always in and around the ocean, and always wanting to learn more about it.

“I’ve always been fascinated. My earliest memories have always been a fascination with the ocean and wanting to learn more.”

Oceans bring us together

He had what he describes as a very fortunate professional career:

“I had a lot of very good people mentoring and guiding me along the way in the field of marine science. Literally all around the world. It opened my eyes as well to different cultures, and different approaches to how different communities interacted with and viewed their relationship with the oceans. Whether it’s the Pacific or Caribbean islands or the Middle East, or different places in Europe.

“That ranged from the more Western philosophy of trying to dominate and control nature, to more Eastern philosophy. Something that the Japanese referred to as Satoumi. This is living in more harmony with the ocean and the marine environment.”

Image credit Olivia Raney

“The Polynesians were practising integrated coastal zone management a thousand years before Europeans and North Americans ever came up with the idea.  

“I’ve been very fortunate both in having some incredible opportunities in the academic research fields and leadership positions in universities, as well as leading some of our nation’s large national marine science partnerships. I have even engaged in and have written about international marine science diplomacy; working around the world to try to bring communities, states and nations together through partnerships in marine science.

“The oceans don’t recognize political boundaries, and they are not things that keep us separate. Actually, the oceans are bridges that bring us all together.”

Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium

Speaking to blooloop while work is underway on Mote SEA, Crosby says he feels that Mote is the culmination of his career:

“I’ve been very fortunate in my career. I think I’ve died and gone to heaven now that I’m at Mote Marine Laboratory. There is no place in the world like it in terms of its unique attributes.”

Image credit Conor Goulding

 Mote Marine Laboratory is an independent, nonprofit, marine research organization.

“It is rare in the world to have a global impact with a completely independent marine research institution that has no bureaucracy.

“We have incredible freedom; all of our scientists do. Freedom to pursue their passions in science and trying to make a difference with their science in terms of the long-term sustainable use and conservation of our marine resources. We have the freedom at Mote to pursue these very innovative things.”

Home to leading scientists

Mote has grown a great deal since its inception. In 1955, Professor Eugenie ‘Genie’ Clark, also known as the ‘Shark Lady’, was its Founding Executive Director. Dr Crosby outlines the history:

“Dr Genie Clark was our founding director 65 years ago. The Vanderbilt family read the stories about her in National Geographic. They heard about the work she was doing in the Middle East in a little lab in the Sinai, near Ras Muhammad. So, the Vanderbilts contacted Genie, and said, ‘Look, we’d like you to come to Southwest Florida and do research here. We’ll build you a little lab.’

Stranded bottlenose dolphin Mote
Image credit Conor Goulding

“Genie said, ‘Sure’. That was the birth of what became Mote Marine Laboratory. Mr Mote came along in the early sixties. He was born here in Florida. As a little boy, he grew up loving to fish. He went off and made his fortune in the big cities up north. Then, he came back and wanted to give back to the oceans.

“Genie said, ‘Well, why don’t you take over the patronage of this facility?’ He did. It has grown incredibly over that 65 years. And our scientists are some of the best and brightest minds in any place in the world. You can look at their productivity in terms of peer-reviewed publications or grantsmanship.

“Well over 50% of our annual revenue comes from competitive grants from NSF, from NIH, EPA, state agencies.”

Pushing the boundaries

Government-funded research, he contends, however, is not the fuel for innovation, taking risks and pushing the frontiers of science:

“Government-funded research has gotten incredibly conservative over the years. When you talk about making real breakthroughs in science and changing whole paradigms of science as we have done with the coral restoration work, and in sustainable aquaculture, and in producing compounds that seem to be potential therapies for 15 different types of human cancer from the epigonal organ of bonnethead sharks, every one of these breakthroughs was funded overwhelmingly by philanthropy. Not by government funding.

Glider Retrieval Mote
Image credit Olivia Raney

“What we were doing was taking chances, pursuing lines of science that had never been pursued. Government science review panels are not going to be too keen on supporting something that is challenging the very paradigms that many of them have created.

“Philanthropy, I think, is that fuel. Philanthropy makes the difference for us to be able to pursue this innovative research that is making a difference.

“The coral work is a wonderful example of being able to change a whole paradigm of science in terms of coral restoration science, and, now, being able to bring back a 100, 200-year-old dead coral head in two or three years. This is through novel new technologies that are all based on good, sound, reviewed science.”

Coral restoration at Mote

He expands on the breakthroughs made in coral restoration:

“With our micro fragmentation and re-skinning technique, we have been able to accelerate the growth rate of a coral about 40 times.

“We look for those genotypes that are resilient to what killed that species of coral in the area in the first place, whether it’s temperature, causing coral bleaching, or acidification, or this horrible coral disease, the Stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD) that spreads like wildfire, with greater than 90% mortality in the Florida Keys, and is spreading throughout the Caribbean.”

“If you can identify the genotypes of the coral that are resilient, then there you go.

And this is the great breakthrough. Those corals that have been micro fragmented in the laboratory setting have been tested for resiliency. They have been planted out in the field, and have been resilient through a coral bleaching event, a category four hurricane, and then this coral disease. Over the last five years since we planted these corals, they have survived all of that.

“Now within five years, that slow-growing coral that usually takes 30 to 50 years to become sexually mature, has become sexually mature in five years, and has spawned.”

Ocean conservation

This is a phenomenal breakthrough:

“It shows we can bring back a dead 200-year-old coral head in as little as two to five years and have it sexually mature and reproducing itself.

“The idea is that we want to put ourselves out of the coral restoration business,” he adds. “Eventually, we want a naturally self-perpetuating coral reef environment. One that isn’t continually relying on humans to go and replant but can maintain its own very diverse genetically diverse population, and species diverse communities.”

Image credit Conor Goulding

Concerning the stresses facing the ocean environment, he says:

“We know climate change is real. We know that there are also naturally occurring stressors in any natural ecosystem. Whether it be disease or ecological evolution of systems. Our goal at Mote is not to get caught up in political debates about climate change, but to recognize that diseases do occur and can spread like this one.

“It’s a coral pandemic that we’re witnessing in the Florida Keys. And we understand that no matter what the world does in terms of climate change, temperatures will be increasing for decades to come.

“Do we, as a scientific community, throw our hands up and say ‘’You know, there’s nothing we can do.’? Or do we use science and technology to develop innovative approaches to mitigate the impacts of these stressors, giving the coral itself the chance to be much more resilient?”

Science-based innovation

“We have so stressed coral reefs all around the world that can’t recover on their own. They’re on the brink of functional extinction right now. So we must use science-based innovation to bring them back. And then have them become a self-sustaining population with high genetic and species diversity.”

Science, he points out, can do more than bring hope.

Lifelong Learning: Florida Coastal Habitats
Image credit Conor Goulding

“In this case,  I think we have now demonstrated we can do this. It can be done any place in the world, with corals all around the world. The science behind it, identifying the resilient genotypes, is rather sophisticated. But for the actual restoration process, we train volunteers to do it. We have high school students doing it.

“We have combat wounded veterans that are working with us in the Florida Keys restoring coral reefs. And we have the dive community involved in restoring these coral reefs. We can engage entire communities in the restoration process itself. And, frankly, we must engage all of these communities in the actual restoration of their coral reefs.”

Mote SEA

On 13 November 2020, Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium broke ground for the new Mote Science Education Aquarium. It is estimated that Mote SEA will be completed by early 2023.

“That’s a big vision that we have for the entire Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium enterprise. When you think of our growth over the last 65 years, we’ve gone from that one scientist, Dr Genie Clark, to now having a staff of 230. Half of which are science staff. I’ve got  36 PhD-level researchers.”

Mote Science Education Aquarium - RENDERING

“We have seven different campuses throughout the state of Florida, and we conduct research literally all around the world. We have grown in this manner because the oceans have been threatened over the years. The threats are growing. And we firmly believe that science and a more-ocean literate public are the answers to dealing with these threats.

“We’ve just talked about the threats that are facing corals, and how we have to grow our science enterprise.”

Growing the organisation

juvenile common snook is PIT-tagged prior to release
Image credit Stephannie Kettle

“The oceans can no longer sustainably feed the world by harvesting what they would naturally provide. We have put a lot of our natural fisheries themselves on the brink of functional extinction. We have to approach helping to feed the world through innovative new technologies and sustainable aquaculture.

“There are so many reasons to grow our science enterprise, that here on our main campus in Sarasota, where our aquarium is and where most of our science scientists are, we have a vision for significantly expanding, adding another 60,000 square feet of research space with medicinal chemistry labs, ocean engineering technology, robotics, sensor development labs.”

“It will be big enough so that when we double our science size, we will also be able to have enough space for visiting scientists from around the world to come here.

“Mote SEA will be, effectively, an international marine science, technology and innovation park. We will be transforming Southwest Florida into a Silicon Valley of marines science and technology, offering good-paying science jobs that are sustainable and environmentally friendly and provide economic growth opportunities that are compatible with a sustainable ocean and coastal environment.”

Mote SEA will respond to threats facing the oceans

All this, he says, is in response to the threats facing the oceans:

“The oceans are calling out to us. We have so stressed them out that we have to find the answers and deploy the technologies and the intellectual property to bring them back to a sustainable level, and to conserve them for future generations.

“But in order to do this on City Island and achieve our vision, we needed to move our aquarium off this great campus for marine research, and have a rebirth of our aquarium as the Mote Science Education Aquarium at a site that is much more accessible to a much larger and more diverse number of people and populations, as well as to people from around the world. So they can have those experiences and become more ocean literate.”

Mote Science Education Aquarium habitat - RENDERING

“Our location is one of the finest locations I have ever seen with respect to a marine research facility. It is probably one of the worst locations in the world to have a major visitor attraction. We have always viewed our aquarium here as an informal science education centre. But we recognise that it really is a major visitor attraction. People have fun; they learn about the ocean.”

An aquarium like no other

The Mote SEA at Nathan Benderson Park will be, he stresses, unlike any other aquarium:

“This is a science education aquarium. Every exhibit in this new facility will be directly related to research that Mote scientists are doing around the world. It will be more than twice the size of our existing facility. Mote SEA will have over a million gallons of seawater and 110,000 square feet of space. There will be three STEM teaching laboratories that are going to be built as part of this new building.”

$21 million of the $130 million total project cost is being spent on the three STEM teaching labs. These will be fitted out with state-of-the-art instrumentation for young children through to high schoolers.

AMIkids Floating Classroom
Image credit Conor Goulding

He explains:

“We’re working closely with the school systems in the counties here in Florida. We want to ensure when those classes and their teachers, come in from elementary school, middle school and high school that they will be getting a hands-on STEM learning experience in these labs. One that directly relates to the required core learning experiences that they have at different grade levels.

“It’s not a field trip. It is a true learning experience. Something that we are going to be providing to every single school in this entire region. Absolutely free of charge.”

STEM education at Mote SEA

In addition, he says:

“We will have one of our great scientists in the lab every day. We will have one of our educators in there every day to interact with the teachers and the students. This will ensure they’re getting an experience that they would never have any place else.

“One of the labs will focus on marine biomedical immunology and microbiology, giving these kids that hands-on experience. One is going to focus on fisheries and marine and coastal ecology. The third is going to focus on ocean engineering, technology, robotics, and sensor development.”

Project Nature Bridge Field Trip Mote
Image credit Conor Goulding

“We call the campaign for Mote Sea Oceans for All. What we’re trying to provide is the opportunity for every single child to have that hands-on experience. No matter what school they attend. And I am reminded of our own experiences and growth over the years.

“In 1931, a little girl of eight years old went into an aquarium for the first time in New York City. She fell in love with the ocean and wanted to learn more. That little girl grew up to be Dr Genie Clark. That first experience in the aquarium began her career of learning about the ocean and making a difference. We want to provide that opportunity to every single child.”

Oceans for All

To ensure that there really are Oceans for All, Dr Crosby plans to maximise the opportunities afforded by the digital space:

“We are specifically designing in very advanced digital technology, we already have our own television studio on our existing campus, and we do distance learning.

“We would like to make sure that as part of Mote SEA the visitors are going to be able to interact with me, and with our Mote scientists that are diving in the Gulf of Aqaba with our Saudi, Israeli and our Jordanian colleagues, together, who are studying the coral reef and talking to guests in the aquarium live.”

Mote SEA habitat - RENDERING

“In addition, we also want to expand our distance learning. That is one of the positive outcomes, if there’s such a thing as a positive outcome of this whole COVID pandemic. We have significantly expanded our education outreach distance learning.

“We’re going to make sure that we take advantage of the most advanced digital technology at Mote SEA. This will allow us to expand this experience and opportunity all around the world. We want to help the world come closer together with a greater understanding of the importance of science, and an increased level of ocean literacy.”

All images kind courtesy of Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium

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Lalla Merlin

Lead Features Writer Lalla studied English at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford University. A writer and film-maker, she lives in rural Devon with husband, children, and an assortment of badly-behaved animals, including an enormous but friendly wolf.

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