Miami scientists scrambled this week to rescue a crop of unusually hardy coral from an unlikely underwater garden at the bottom of one of the world’s busiest shipping channels.
The coral, which may hold clues about how sea life adapts to climate change, is growing in Government Cut. The channel, created more than a century ago, leads to PortMiami and is undergoing a $205 million dredging project — scheduled to begin Saturday — to deepen the sea floor by about 10 feet in time for a wave of new monster cargo ships cruising through an expanded Panama Canal starting in 2015.
Endangered coral and larger coral have already been removed by a team hired by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing the dredging work.
But the remaining coral, deemed “corals of opportunity” in Corps lingo, can be retrieved with a permit. The problem, scientists say, is they only had 12 days between when the permits were issued last month and the start of dredging, not nearly enough time to save the unusual colonies thriving in Government Cut.
“There are just thousands of corals out there, so it’s really a mammoth task,” said Andrew Baker, a University of Miami professor and coral biologist who researches the effects of warming oceans and acidification on coral. “This could be the seed population for climate-tolerant corals, and we’re wiping them out by literally blowing them up.”
The corals, some of which may be 40 years old, could prove significant because of the very work that spells their doom. Despite the churning, turbid waters in the busy channel, which is also whipped by currents rushing in and out with every tide, a variety of corals including brain, flower, great star, cactus and mustard hill have acclimated to the unnatural conditions, Baker said.
And so far, some of the varieties appear to be incredibly hardy: About 18 colonies of fuzzy-looking mustard hill spawned the night after a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist deposited them in buckets at UM’s Experimental Hatchery on Virginia Key.
“It’s just a shame that now that we’re getting an inkling of what causes corals to survive, we’re destroying them,” said Baker, who is trying to mimic their deep-water home by pumping water from nearby Bear Cut into three shaded tanks.
Coral in the channel has been a matter of contention almost from the beginning of the dredge work, which will consume about seven acres of reef, including five undisturbed acres at the mouth of the channel. The Corps had originally planned on transplanting only threatened species, including fragile staghorn. But after two environmental groups sued in 2011, Miami-Dade County and the Corps agreed to expand the mitigation area to 16.6 acres and move any coral colonies bigger than about 10 inches, along with another 1,300 between about four and 10 inches.
Coral — which looks like a plant but is actually an animal — is a protected species and can only be moved with a permit. Even then restrictions are tight: Baker said he normally uses a syringe to extract DNA from wild coral for his experiments.
In response to questions about the permit timing this week from the Biscayne Bay Waterkeepers and Colin Foord, who is leading another dive team, the Corps said contractor Great Lakes Dredge & Dock had relocated 700 colonies, including 38 rare staghorn. Forty days later, the staghorn were still “alive and in good health, with only minor bleaching and partial mortality,” a statement said.
But when Baker and Foord began retrieving coral last week, they discovered many large colonies of other coral — Baker found 20 to 30 — bigger than 10 inches left behind.
That’s because the coral was growing outside the designated mitigation area, said Lisa Gregg, who handles special activity permits for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. FWC initially told Baker and Foord they’d have two months to retrieve coral, Gregg said, thinking bad weather and delays would push the start of the dredge work to July. Instead, the Corps scheduled work to begin Saturday.
“The FWC just wants to support these corals going somewhere where they’re going to support research and education and those types of activities rather than being destroyed by dredging,” she said.
Earlier in the week, she said the FWC tried to persuade the Corps to give the teams more time. But Thursday, Corps spokeswoman Susan Jackson said the huge project, with “many moving pieces,” could not be postponed.
“This is already extremely challenging. We cannot allow access in an active construction zone,” Jackson wrote in an email.
The coral is particularly significant, Baker said, because it might explain how some coral can adapt to warmer oceans. Coral also is critical to protecting coasts from storm surge. Just last month, an international team of scientists published a study in the online journal Nature Communications finding that coral reefs act as a natural barricade, breaking up wave action by as much as 97 percent.
The Caribbean, Baker said, has already lost 80 percent of its coral. And between 1997 and 1998, during the last Pacific El Niño event, about 16 percent of the world’s coral, most in the West Indian Ocean, died in just nine months, he said. Climatologists say another El Niño weather pattern should develop this summer.
Foord, who earned a bachelor’s degree in marine biology from UM and is part of a two-man, coral-themed art team called Coral Morphologic, is transplanting the coral onto an artificial reef about a mile south of the channel. He also is collecting coral for researchers from the Smithsonian Marine Station in Fort Pierce and Pennsylvania State University and plans on keeping some coral for research in his own lab just off the Miami River.
Foord said he first discovered the coral when diving the channel in 2009, looking for what he calls urban coral.
“These are corals that are taking advantage and living on man-made infrastructure,” he said. “Everyone knows corals are on decline, but Miami kind of acts as an inverted coral lab.”
Foord had been preparing for the rescue mission since January, when FWC first alerted him that the permits would probably be issued in May and last through July. The last-minute change in plans, he said, left him and Baker scrambling.
“We basically lost five weeks of time we were planning and preparing for,” he said. “It really threw us off.”