Coral reef conservation groups received a huge boost Friday when the Monroe County Commission approved using local grant funding for coral nurseries and restoration projects in the Florida Keys.
The commission's ruling will allow the groups to pursue hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in Monroe County Tourist Development Council (TDC) funding.
"These projects are extremely important to our environment and economy," said Commissioner George Neugent, who has been pushing for TDC funding of coral projects. "The reef is the number one reason people come to the Keys."
The commission approved the use of funds after the state attorney general ruled that coral nurseries and restoration work can receive TDC funding. The county commission asked for the opinion in July after the Coral Restoration Foundation of Tavernier twice applied for TDC funding but was denied.
The foundation applied for $98,000 for the 2012-13 fiscal year, and $72,500 for the 2013-14 fiscal year.
Neugent wanted the county to classify the coral nurseries and restoration sites as underwater "zoological parks," which would make them eligible for TDC funding. Under state statute, zoological parks and nature centers can receive TDC funding.
Last year, the Coral Restoration Foundation replanted 10,000 basketball-sized staghorn corals on the reef. The group's founder, Ken Nedimeyer, wants to double that number this year, he said.
"People come to the Keys to dive and fish, and both are dependent on a healthy coral reef," Nedimyer said. "This is a great way to use TDC money."
The Coral Restoration Foundation has requested $115,000 in TDC funding for projects this fiscal year.
Neugent and Nedimyer have both argued that ecotourism in the Keys has become a big business.
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 Marine Laboratory also regularly takes visiting divers and scientists to its coral nursery and transplant site off Big Pine Key.
"More than a thousand people come to the Keys every year to work on these projects," Nedimyer said. "They leave with a very unique experience, knowing that they have made a difference. They see the results."
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 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.
Mote Marine Lab also plans to apply for TDC funding for its coral nurseries and replanting sites, said Jason Wolf, who oversees fund-raising in the Keys for Mote.
Mote conducted a major outplanting of coral from its nursery in 2012, when scientists planted 600 staghorn corals at four sites near Looe Key and American Shoal, according to Erich Bartels, Mote coral reef science and monitoring program director.
Mote is the first coral conservation group to successfully rear and transplant mountain star and boulder coral "skins" on the reef.
In March, 220 lab-raised coral skins were placed on the calcium carbonate shells of dead boulder and star coral. Mote hopes the skins will eventually cover the entire hulking skeletons.
"It's an investment in our environment, our economy and our way of life in the Keys," Wolf said of the county commission's decision to allow coral projects to receive TDC funding.