Florida Keys News
Thursday, July 11, 2013
County mayor seeks TDC money for coral restoration

Monroe County Mayor George Neugent wants to amend how the county classifies coral nurseries so that the much-needed restoration activity will be eligible for county Tourist Development Council funding.

The County Commission will discuss Neugent's request when it meets Wednesday in Key West.

The Florida Keys have seen more than a 36 percent decline in coral cover since 1996, and the world has seen a 25 percent loss of all corals in the past 30 years, according to scientific reports.

Staghorn and elkhorn corals were listed as threatened on the federal endangered species list in 2005, as those species have declined by up to 98 percent throughout their range, which includes the Keys.

This bleak outlook for coral motivated Upper Keys biologist Ken Nedimyer, Mote Marine Laboratory and other groups to grow coral in underwater nurseries across the Keys.

Divers from around the world come here to see how the technology works and to help work with the corals.

Amy Slate's Amoray Dive Resort in Key Largo regularly offers dive trips to Nedimyer's nurseries and restoration sites off the Upper Keys.

Mote also regularly takes visiting divers and scientists to its coral nursery and transplant site off Big Pine Key.

Neugent wants the county to classify the coral nurseries, restoration sites and the coral planting activities as underwater "zoological parks," which would make them available for Tourist Development Council funding.

Under state statute, zoological parks and nature centers can receive TDC funding.

Nedimyer has twice applied for TDC funding, but the requests were denied by the County Attorney's Office, which said they didn't meet state requirements. Nedimyer applied for $98,000 in TDC funding for the 2012-13 fiscal year and $72,500 for the 2013-14 fiscal year.

Neugent argued that the coral nurseries attract visitors and are part of Keys ecotourism, which in turn should make them eligible for TDC funding.

"People love this stuff and come from around the world to dive on it," Neugent said.

The County Attorney shot down the requests because they were asking to pay for the "gluing of the coral to the reef," and not for the concrete blocks and other infrastructure used to build the underwater nurseries, Assistant County Attorney Cynthia Hall said.

Hall said she does not disagree philosophically with the projects, but that state statues do not allow for much flexibility when it comes to taxes.

She will go before the County Commission in August to ask the board to request the State Attorney General's Office rule on whether the coral nurseries, replanting sites and the accompanying restoration work could be construed as a zoological park or nature center.

Hall did cite a previous attorney general opinion that classified ships sunk as wrecks as nature centers.

The County Commission meets at 9 a.m. Wednesday at the Harvey Government Center, 1200 Truman Ave.

tohara@keysnews.com

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