Rescuing Corals

Rosenstiel researchers are rushing to save corals and other creatures that could be destroyed when the Port of Miami channel is dredged.

Special to UM News

MIAMI, Fla. (June 04, 2014) — A team from the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science is working quickly to save corals and other creatures that are in danger of being destroyed when the Port of Miami channel entrance is dredged soon.

Andrew Baker, a coral biologist and professor at the Rosenstiel School, applied in January for a permit to rescue the corals. The permit was issued in late May, giving Baker and his team a 12-day window to collect the corals. The deep-dredge project resumes on June 7, and is intended to expand access to Miami’s seaport. Baker and his graduate students have assembled a team of scientific divers to rescue as many of the corals as possible before seafloor digging begins.

“Most people wouldn’t think a busy harbor port would be home to such vibrant marine life,” said Baker. “But in fact there are abundant and diverse coral communities right here in Miami’s backyard.”

Thousands of coral live in the area which are spread over thousands of square meters and provide habitat for many other marine creatures, including seafans, sponges, lobsters, crabs, shrimp, clams, urchins, and seastars, as well as abundant fish populations.

The narrow time window, combined with poor weather conditions, presents a challenge to the rescue effort. Over 600 corals have been saved so far and brought to UM’s Experimental Hatchery and Aquaculture facility on Virginia Key. Baker intends to rescue many more before the permits expire on Friday and the dredging begins.

“Our goal is to rescue as many of these important corals as we can, give them a new home, and understand what makes them so adaptable,” said Baker. “We’re working against the clock to save what might be the best hope for Miami’s future reefs.”

Baker’s research focuses on the genetic mechanisms by which corals adapt to environmental stressors, such as climate change.

“These corals may be pre-adapted to deal with warmer temperatures and harsher environments, and it’s a huge loss to destroy them when they may be the most resilient corals in the area,” he said.

Coral reefs, among the most bio-diverse ecosystems on the planet, are critical indicators of the health of the oceans, and help scientists like Baker understand and monitor climate change and ocean acidification. They protect coastlines from storms and help sustain coastal communities. In South Florida alone, reefs provide as much as $6 billion to the local economy.

“These corals, which might provide us with clues to understanding how coral reefs adapt and survive in tough environments, are all very healthy,” said Baker. “We’ve even found some that are releasing larvae, proving that these reefs are bursting with new life. So this is really a ‘coralitarian’ effort to save them, much like a humanitarian relief effort in a crisis.”

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