The ocean is the lifeblood of the Florida Keys -- the main economic driver and a major source of recreation.
For a fourth straight year, Mote Marine Laboratory will hold its annual Florida Keys Ocean Festival on Saturday.
In the span of just a few short years, the festival has grown in attendance and in its number of activities. The first year, there were only a "handful of vendors" and about 1,500 attendees, Mote's Reef Program Manager Jason Wolf said.
Last year, 6,000 people attended, and the number of vendors more than doubled. This year, there will be 30 booths for ocean conservation groups and 50 for crafts and food.
"It's grown into quite an event," Wolf said. "We have some real cool things going on this year."
Artist Robert Wyland will be painting with children and also create a piece to be auctioned off later in the day, he added. There will be 150 items up for auction, as well as live music, food and drink.
There will also be a free fishing seminar for children hosted by the nonprofit group Anglers for Conservation. The first 100 kids who preregistered got a free rod and reel.
"We want fishing to be a positive experience and children to learn conservative-minded fishing techniques," Wolf said.
The event is critical for letting the public know what conservation groups are doing in the Keys, Mote's Florida Keys Executive Director Dave Vaughn said.
"The original intention was to expose people to the wonderful facility, the Eco-Discovery Center," Vaughn said. "It has also allowed people to see what nonprofit or conservation groups are doing in the Florida Keys and allowed the groups to see what their counterparts are doing. We have a lot of good conservation groups, but unfortunately, people don't know about them."
The event will be from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center on the Truman Waterfront.
It comes a month before Mote decides which research and education programs to fund through its "Protect Our Reefs" specialty license plate program, which generates $1 million a year.
Since its inception in 2004, the license plate has raised more than $5.8 million.