Florida school opens coral reef research center

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The Nova Southeastern University Oceanographic Center celebrated the grand opening of its Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Ecosystems Science Research Thursday with an appearance by former Vice President Al Gore and a photo op of university president George Hanbury diving on a coral reef nursery off Fort Lauderdale.

The $50 million, 82,000-square-foot facility on Nova’s 10-acre oceanography campus on Dania Beach’s Intracoastal Waterway is the country’s largest center for coral reef study and a first step toward Nova’s goal of becoming a major research university.

“We have another research facility planned for the main campus,” Hanbury said. That one will be 220,000 square feet and cost at least $100 million to build. It will be devoted to biological, biotechnology, medical, pharmaceutical and high-technology research.

Hanbury said he expects Nova to be contracting $300 million in research by 2020.

Gore, who said he has seen Florida’s reefs firsthand as a scuba diver, said they are “amazing” and talked about the impact of global warming and acidic oceans.

“Coral reef ecosystems can be saved by the research going on in this facility," he said.

The center has a land-based nursery where corals are cultured in large tanks for transplant on damaged reefs when they are mature enough. It also tends a nursery in the ocean off Fort Lauderdale where researchers plant staghorn coral fragments and grow them into mature corals that they either harvest for transplant on reefs or use as sources of branches that they plant in their nursery and grow into larger corals.

“As we are able to learn more about these species we can improve the health of the reefs, improve the health of the fisheries and improve our economy,” said David Gilliam, an assistant professor at the coral reef center. “This is doable.”

The coral reefs generate about $6 billion and 71,000 jobs for South Florida’s economy through diving and reef fishing tourism. “It’s amazing that we have so much coral off our coast,” said Capt. Todd Rogers, owner-operator of the 46-foot American Dream II diveboat. “We don’t know anything about coral, so this [research] is going to help.”

Nova has 28,000 students, 80 percent of whom are graduate students and professionals. Hanbury said Nova will remain mainly a teaching university, but with so many graduate students it makes sense to get them involved in research.

— Jim Flannery

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