The Monroe County Commission on Wednesday approved the criteria and application form for projects to be funded through fines levied on BP and Transocean for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
The commission also selected its own top projects it wants funded through the fines, which will come to the county through the federal Restore Act.
From July 22 to Aug. 30, Monroe County will accept applications for roughly $11 million in environmental restoration and marine-based economic development projects. The applications are available on the Restore Act section of the county's website.
The Local (Restore Act) Advisory Committee, established in February, will review and rank the applications in one or more public meetings in September, county Legislative Affairs Director Lisa Tennyson said. The County Commission will ultimately decide what projects will be funded.
The 11-member advisory committee, comprising local government leaders, scientists, business owners and fishermen, has met three times.
Projects must have an environmental or economic benefit, or both, Tennyson said.
The commission also agreed to four priority projects it wants funded seperate from the projects that will go before the advisory committee.
From a "local pot" of money, the commission agreed to request $3 million for stormwater projects, $2 million for canal restoration and $1 million for mooring fields, the meeting agenda states.
From a statewide "consortium pot," the commission agreed to request $5 million for stormwater projects, $5 million for canal restoration projects, $4.5 million for mooring fields and $6 million for acquisition of conservation lands, the agenda states.
Also at the Wednesday meeting, the commission agreed to support coral nurseries and restoration sites as "zoological parks," which would make them eligible for county Tourist Development Council (TDC) funding.
The commission agreed to request a state Attorney General's Office opinion to determine if the coral nurseries and restoration sites meet the legal requirement of being zoological parks.
Commissioners Danny Kolhage and Heather Carruthers voted against the designation, because the Monroe County Attorney's Office researched it and ruled it not eligible.
The two commissioners did vote in favor of having the Attorney General's Office opine on the matter, though.
Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council members Dave Vaughan and Chris Bergh and sanctuary regional administrator Billy Causey attended Wednesday's meeting to support giving the coral nurseries and restoration sites the zoological park designation.
Last week, the Sanctuary Advisory Council voted for it.
Causey, Vaughan and Bergh cited the benefits of reef restoration and how coral nurseries and restoration sites in the Keys have become destinations for divers and scientists around the world.
Bergh argued that nurseries themselves are zoos.
"Zoological parks, or zoos as they are called on the street, are places where people are guaranteed they can go and see animals," Bergh said.
"A coral nursery is a place to see animals. The corals themselves are animals. There are invertebrates. There is marine life ...
"I think it fits as a zoological park. It makes sense. I would classify the whole entire Keys reef as a zoological park."
Some Keys dive shops have begun to offer ecotourism packages that include working at coral nurseries and restoration sites.
Amy Slate's Amoray Dive Resort in Key Largo regularly offers dive trips to coral biologist Ken 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.
Bergh also told the commission that all corals grown at nurseries in the Keys stay in the Keys and are not sold or shipped to other areas of the world.
There are attorney general opinions that have classified ships sunk as artificial reefs as nature centers.
"If we can put (TDC) money toward artificial reefs, we should have the ability to put it toward the natural reef," Vaughan said.
"The more people that come to see the reef, the more people will want to save it."
Commissioner Sylvia Murphy argued that if the Attorney General's Office does not support classifying the nurseries and restoration sites as a zoological parks or nature centers, the county should push to change state law to allow it.
"When the rules were set up, no one knew you could do this," Murphy said. "If it doesn't fit as a nature center, maybe a new category should be established. It (coral restoration) works and it's the future."