SARASOTA, Fla. (WFLA) — Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota was recently awarded a nearly $7 million grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The grant will fund a four-year project aimed at implementing a holistic approach to restoring coral reefs off Florida’s coast.

“Now we are focusing on continuing and expanding the coral restoration, but also adding in other essential community members for a good healthy coral ecosystem,” said Mote CEO Dr. Michael Crosby.

In addition to out-planting around 242,000 coral fragments along 10 reef sites just offshore the Florida Keys, the funds will also cover the cost of growing and releasing 34,000 Caribbean king crabs on the reef. The native crab is an herbivore that eats the algae that restricts the growth of the corals.

Coral Reef Restoration Research Program Manager Dr. Jason Spadaro says there currently aren’t enough of those crabs in the environment to keep the algae growth under control.

“They act as sort of our lawnmowers, so they are out weeding our coral gardens so that the corals don’t compete with algae on the reef, which they do at the moment,” said Spadaro.

Sparado also talked about why the public should be interested in coral reef restoration.

“If you enjoy breathing, this is a very critical effort. While our coral reefs don’t produce a large portion of the oxygen that we breathe, our open ocean ecosystems absolutely do and coral reefs are kind of the canary in the coal mine for ocean health, and our reefs are telling us that something is wrong,” said Dr. Sparado. “They are also socially one of the most important resources in the United States. This is the only living coral reef ecosystem in the continental United States and it is the third largest barrier reef ecosystem on the planet. From a biodiversity perspective, this is an irreplaceable natural resource that we all rely on,” he continued.

Mote’s President and CEO explained restoration efforts will need to continue on for many years to come.

“Motes vision and our initiative that we have outlined for the next decade is to out plant over 1 million coral that, in the end, will help to increase the living coral cover from the 2% to 5% where it is now up to approximately 30% living coral cover, which isn’t as dense as it was when I was very young in the Keys, but it’s still back to what it was about 30 or 40 years ago. That will accomplish restoration of about a quarter of all of the restorable area in the Florida Keys. There will still be a significant amount of work to do from there, but our vision is also to start moving the restoration effort up the entire Florida reef track all the way up to the East Coast as well as far as that reef goes. Our work is far from done, but this new grant is a major, major burst of energy and financial support that is allowing us to have a huge difference within just a four year period,” said Crosby.