SARASOTA COUNTY Fla. (WFLA) — Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium celebrated the opening of its Caribbean king crab hatchery during a ribbon-cutting ceremony Monday. The facility will help Mote expand its work relating to coral restoration in the Florida Keys.

The facility sits in eastern Sarasota County. The hope is for the hatchery to produce around 250,000 crabs each year.

“We have been successful in being able to outplant coral that are resilient to what kills it in the first place, the temperature, the ocean acidification, and coral disease, but we have to remember, the coral reefs are an integrated community, an ecosystem of themselves, and it isn’t just the coral species that you must have to have a healthy coral reef, you also have to have that whole community,” said CEO Dr. Michael Crosby.

That’s where the Caribbean king crab comes into play. The herbivore is a critical species for the reefs off the coast of Florida.

“The Caribbean king crab is an essential grazer that eats that macroalgae, so it eats the algae and keeps the coral reef clean so that the new recruits can settle,” said Dr. Crosby.

If the macroalgae overgrows the existing coral, he explains it’s difficult for the next generation of coral to settle and thrive as part of the reef system.

“This is a big step forward in integrating this holistic, non-coral animal into our restoration strategy at a scale that goes beyond experimental,” said Dr. Jason Spadaro.

Dr. Spadaro is the Coral Reef Restoration Research Program Manager at Mote. He hopes the work they’re doing at the new hatchery will serve as a model to others working to restore the reef.

“The nearly catastrophic heat wave that we have been experiencing on the reef really underscores the need for these kinds of holistic, non-coral interventions to be added to our toolbelt,” said Dr. Spadaro.

Mote researchers believe the crab species could be a “critical component” to the success of Florida’s Coral Reef long-term.