Miami-Dade County

Ultra stressed out some UM research fish on Virginia Key, initial report says

Ultra Music Festival stressed out some of the University of Miami’s research fish more than being chased by a predator would have.

A preliminary analysis done by UM scientists show toadfish, a species that is common to Biscayne Bay with a physiology that lends itself to study of stress response, heard the music and exhibited acute stress levels during Ultra’s first day on Virginia Key. The report shows the fish were less stressed than if they were in a crowded tank but more stressed than if they heard the pop sounds from a dolphin, a species with a taste for toadfish.

The findings raise questions about how the booming electronic dance music from Ultra’s stages might impact other fish — wild ones as well as other research fish swimming in tanks at the UM facility on Virginia Key.

Researchers who presented the preliminary report to the Virginia Key citizen advisory board cautioned that the findings provide a snapshot of one species’ reaction to the sound and do not reach any conclusions about long-term effects of exposure to Ultra’s music on the fish. Still, scientists from the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, which has tanks 1,200 feet from the beachfront park that served as one of Ultra’s two staging areas this year, said the data serves as a canary in the coal mine for what could happen to the hatchery fish.

“So what we’re talking about here and what our data show presently is that Ultra was causing a short-term acute stress on our fish,” said Danielle McDonald, an associate professor at UM. “We don’t know and we cannot conclude whether this stress would have persisted over time.”

McDonald said it would be worthwhile to study the other research species’ sensitivity to the sound, but the toadfish data provides a good model for fish in general.

The fish in UM’s experimental hatchery at the Rosenstiel School, including cobia, mahi mahi and yellowfin tuna, have been bred over years to develop a specific genetic broodstock. The fish play key roles in valuable marine research, the kind of work that helped seal a $19 billion settlement after the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

UM had first raised the issue of Ultra’s potential impact on fish in November before city commissioners approved a contract for the festival to move to Virginia Key after it was kicked out of its longtime home in Bayfront Park.

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Ultra pushed back on those concerns then, and they pushed again Wednesday in response to the report. Organizers questioned whether UM was targeting the festival, given the number of other music festivals that are staged on Virginia Key.

“The study is inconclusive, however, to the extent that any short-term sound elevations did actually occur during our production — which all evidence seemingly refutes — any purported impacts are expected to have no long-term effects,” said Rafe Petersen, one of Ultra’s attorneys. “The report, on its face, does not reach any conclusions regarding long-term effects of Ultra.”

toadfish.jpg
Toadfish in the experimental hatchery at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science were stressed by the music booming from the nearby stages at Ultra, University of Miami researchers said. (This toadfish was photographed last year in the Caribbean.) NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration AP

While music blasted from multiple stages on Ultra’s first day, scientists quantified the toadfish’s stress levels by measuring the amount of a stress hormone called cortisol in the animal’s blood twice before the festival opened and once on the first night of Ultra.

McDonald said a full report is expected to be done by May 3, which will include an analysis of the sound measurements in the air and underwater at two other locations on Virginia Key. Deputy City Manager Joe Napoli told the advisory board the city is still waiting on a full post-event environmental assessment from Ultra.

Ultra’s future is up to Miami commissioners, who on May 9 will decide if they want to keep the festival on Virginia Key. Commissioners have fielded a slew of other complaints from residents of mainland Miami and on Key Biscayne regarding traffic and the music’s bass carrying across Biscayne Bay and into residential neighborhoods and up the towers that make up Brickell’s skyline.

Concertgoers themselves complained about logistical problems on the festival’s first night, when people grew frustrated with a disorganized mass exit of more than 50,000 ticket holders who struggled to board shuttle buses or walked nearly three miles back to the mainland. Organizers quickly regrouped and significantly improved the transit operation on the second and third nights.

At Tuesday’s advisory board hearing, many speakers from the public praised Ultra for its effort to minimize its environmental impact while hastily arranging a massive event on a tight timeline. Ousted in September from Bayfront Park, Ultra had since mid-November to prepare for a debut on Virginia Key.

Other UM students and residents opposed Ultra’s return to the 860-acre island while acknowledging the festival did as well as any event of that scale could in an environmentally sensitive environment. Virginia Key has nesting habitats for endangered sea turtles, crocodiles and seabirds. It borders the Bill Sadowski Critical Wildlfe Area created in 1990 after speedboat racing ended at the marine stadium.

Guy Forchion, executive director of the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust, suggested that while there are concerns about the volume of the music blasting from Ultra, festival organizers kept the island clean from litter.

“Probably the cleanest large event ever held on the island,” he said.

Many said the festival is simply a bad fit, given the delicate surroundings.

“The people of Ultra are wonderful, but Ultra doesn’t belong on Virginia Key,” said board member Robert Vernon.

Read the preliminary report below:

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