Port of Miami dredge project could kill rare ‘super’ coral

By | August 14th, 2011 | 12 Comments
Fisher Island Hybrid Coral

This 'super' coral has withstood deadly cold, blistering heat, and harsh waters -- but can it withstand the Deep Dredge?

On Friday, 29-year-old marine biologist Colin Foord took scientists from the Smithsonian Institution, the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (RSMAS), and upstate St. Petersburg’s Pier Aquarium out in his 1969 Boston Whaler to a sea wall on the Fisher Island side of Government Cut, the lane through which, every day, enormous cruise ships and shipping vessels travel to and from the Port of Miami.

The scientists had all crowded into Foord’s boat to see with their own eyes what Foord could not believe he was seeing with his two years earlier during one of his regular excursions through Miami’s inner city waterways: a hybrid coral of the genus Acropora that is rarely seen in South Florida waters, let alone in the harsh H2O of one of the busiest shipping lanes in the country.

“I’ve never seen a hybrid anywhere off the coast of Florida, and I’ve done thousands of dives,” says Foord, who is half of the duo behind Coral Morphologic, a Miami-based “scientific art endeavor” that conducts research in its Overtown laboratory, creates gorgeous imagery of coral via HD videography and site-specific projection, and raises money for coral restoration through its record label, Discosoma Records, which releases limited-edition vinyl records from South Floridian musicians.

“These researchers have not seen them here in Florida,” Foord adds. “They’ve heard of people finding them … but here in Florida they’re virtually absent.”

The scarcity of the coral — a hybrid of the Elkhorn and Staghorn species, both critically endangered branching corals formerly common to the Caribbean Sea — helps to explain Foord’s response when he first spotted it.

“My initial reaction was, ‘Oh my God’,” he says. “I thought it was a species from another ocean that someone had planted there.”

Coral Hybrid by Night
The coral hybrid is fluorescent, “highly unusual for a Caribbean Acropora species,” Foord says.

His astonishment only grew when he observed that the hybrid was actually thriving in Government Cut, which even a layman would presume an inhospitable environment for a coral or any other life form on account of its murky water and daily traffic of humungous ships.

But over the last two years, Foord has seen the hybrid withstand cold snaps while other coral died off in harrowing numbers, and he is seeing it manage this summer’s heat with aplomb.

“There is a variety of other corals growing in Government Cut,” Foord says. “It’s actually quite a beautiful marine habitat. But they’re starting to bleach now, because bleaching typically happens when the water temperature gets too warm, which is of course what everyone’s so concerned about with global warming. It doesn’t necessarily kill the coral, it’s just an indicator of stress. It means the coral is not getting nutrients it needs and, if conditions don’t get back down to normal, then the coral can die. But this coral is not showing any signs of stress. It’s not showing any signs of bleaching.”

Such vigor is attributed to hybrids of many species. Foord draws a comparison to mutts, which often display greater hardiness than purebred dogs. (Of course, the proud owner of a Bluetick Coonhound or a Bichon Frise might indignantly disagree.) But, under Foord’s observant eye, the Acropora hybrid has proven itself especially robust, not only in withstanding swings in temperature that would off weaker corals — including its parent species — but also in its fecundity. Whereas many hybrid creatures cannot reproduce, it is likely the coral hybrid in Government Cut can breed both sexually and asexually.

“A lot of times hybrids are presumed to be sterile,” Foord says. “For instance, a mule is a cross between a donkey and a horse, and a mule is sterile. So people are like, sure, a mule has traits that are better than a horse and better than a donkey, but what good is it because you can’t keep the genetic line going to create a new species. With the [coral hybrid], it seems quite the opposite.”

Foord believes its combination of preternatural adaptability, vigor, and fecundity make the coral hybrid a candidate for rehabilitating South Florida’s critically endangered coral reefs, which have been decimated over the last 30 years.

“If you’re going to go to the trouble of having a rehabilitation program and spend millions of dollars growing corals over years and years, you need to start with a coral that is like a super coral,” he says. “And this hybrid coral is like a super coral. It is the ultimate survivor. This is the coral that needs to be protected, it needs to be studied, it needs to be saved, and, most importantly, it needs to be aquacultured.”

That said, the hybrid’s potential in the fight to revive coral populations is not the only reason the Smithsonian’s Dr. Nicole Fogarty — the world’s foremost authority on staghorn-elkhorn hybrid corals, Foord says — and the rest of the experts boarded Foord’s Boston Whaler on Friday. Their excursion had a heightened sense of urgency because of the imminent Port of Miami Deep Dredge Project, which will deepen Government Cut from 42 feet to 50 feet in order to accommodate “megaships”. (The Port of Miami project is related to an expansion of the Panama Canal that will let so-called “Super Post Panamax Megaships” pass through the canal as soon as 2014.)

The dredging of the Port poses a grave threat to the hybrid coral Foord found along the sea wall of Fisher Island, its vigor notwithstanding.

“They need to widen and deepen [Government Cut], and the only way to do that is to get in there and dredge it, and remove rock and sand, and that inevitably makes the water very dirty, and could quite possibly kill this coral,” Foord says.

Calling the hybrid a “one-in-a-million” discovery, Foord believes its demise would be a huge loss to science, which is why he is hoping the researchers will be able to obtain permits to collect some of the colony for the RSMAS coral nursery in Biscayne National Park and the Coral Restoration Foundation’s nurseries in Key Largo. At the same time, he has a pragmatic take on its conservation.

“I’m not trying to turn this coral into the Spotted Owl of Miami to stop this [dredge] project,” he says. “Let’s just get these permits, let’s get the fragments, and let’s let [the Port of Miami] do their project. Because I would agree that this is a man-made, artificial habitat [whose intended function] needs to take precedent.”

Fisher Island Sea Wall
The hybrid coral Foord found is growing in about one foot of water on the Fisher Island side of Government Cut.

Foord concedes that his discovery may not yield any scientific breakthroughs. It may turn out, for example, that the hybrid only likes living in Government Cut and the fact that it’s thriving there does not mean it will thrive in harsh conditions elsewhere. But he suspects otherwise.

“I don’t think that’s going to be the case,” he says. “If it’s happy where it is, I think it will be able to live just about anywhere else you put it in Florida.”

The implications of that prospective development is one of things Foord plans to explain when he speaks at the TEDxMIA “Between the Lines” Conference at the New World Symphony on September 13. His presentation will likely feature the exquisite projections that are the hallmark of Coral Morphologic, which, in partnership with the Miami Science Museum, is one of the finalists in the running for a 2011 Knight Arts Challenge grant.

During his TEDxMIA presentation, Foord will also strive to hammer home one of Coral Morphologic’s bedrock beliefs, that Miami, the only mainland U.S. city with a natural coral reef off of its shore, is, both figuratively and literally, a coral city.

“Miami is … a city that is built on an ancient fossilized coral reef,” Foord says. “From our perspective as artists, this is where we get a lot of our metaphors for the city and the coral reef being actually quite similar in a lot of respects. The coral reef is a habitat that’s very urban in nature. Miami is, of course, an urban city, and it’s also very colorful. So we make the argument through our work that Miami has had its fluorescent, colorful spirit imbued in it for eons, and this ultra-rare coral hybrid growing where it is … represents the idea that it is still a coral city, and it will continue to be in the future.”

Update: “A Tallahassee administrative law judge on Wednesday ordered a hearing for August that puts dredging and blasting on indefinite hold,” according to a Jan. 25, 2012, Miami Herald article.

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12 Comments on “Port of Miami dredge project could kill rare ‘super’ coral”

  1. 1 Blanca said at 2:16 pm on August 15th, 2011:

    Environmental and civic groups have filed comments with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection with concerns about the Port of Miami deep dredge project. The letter can be seen at
    http://bit.ly/miamiportletter.

  2. 2 Nicole McCauley AKA Niki Em said at 3:43 pm on August 15th, 2011:

    Ironically my husband went snorkling last week and told me about a beautiful reef in front of Fisher IS. He told me he HAS to take me because I LOVE the water and marine life. Today I read this article and am so happy to hear that Earth evolves and survives! I am a local singer/performer too and would love to get involved with your projects. I’ve been volunteering with the Marine Mammel Concervancy and the Urban Paradise guild and would love to use my music and event production skills for projects that support our community!

  3. 3 cixcell said at 3:51 pm on August 15th, 2011:

    that site needs to be guarded day and night. i’m terrified someone will walk off with it.

  4. 4 Albert Harum-Alvarez said at 4:21 pm on August 15th, 2011:

    Yes: the metropolis that has attached itself to the eastern limerock ridge of South Florida IS an extension of the reef!

    And accepting that we humans are PART OF an ancient process, rather than APART FROM it, will be the basis of a new notion of ecology. The environmental ethos that can thrive in places like Miami and Mumbai won’t be like what you hear in Boston or Berlin. It’ll be more like this new coral. Glad that Mr. Foord calls Miami home.

    This is a young place that’s not afraid of the future. Telling that Mr. Foord didn’t oppose the deepening of the channel…

    Miamians are something new, like this newly discovered coral, and we also thrive in difficult circumstances. No human community in the history of humanity has managed to make a working city out of such divergent and seemingly incompatible parts.

    Dive Miami!

  5. 5 Captain Dan Kipnis said at 4:30 pm on August 16th, 2011:

    Unfortunately, the deep dredge project will forever alter the ecology of Biscayne Bay. Many years of blasting will be required to deepen Government Cut and the south channel of the port. Untold sea creatures such as tarpon, snook, snappers, groupers, grunts, jacks, tropicals, bait fish, crustaceans and thousands of cubic yards of corals and sponges are going to be decimated. Even after the deep dredge project is completed, many experts doubt that the super post- panamax ships will even stop in Miami. Port Everglades has just announced that it will compete head to head with Miami for these ships. They are plowing 345 million dollars into their project. Do we really need to destroy the most important component to life in south Florida, Biscayne Bay, for a few dollars more? It is time to say enough to rampant development that has placed south Florida in a precarious situation as the world heats up and sea level rises. Our time in this paradise is limited and we should be doing all we can to preserve the natural state of things not destroying them.

  6. 6 Charles Nelson said at 1:05 am on August 17th, 2011:

    Miami is not the only US city located next to a living coral reef. Honolulu can also lay claim to this.

  7. 7 Jordan Melnick said at 8:49 am on August 17th, 2011:

    @Charles Nelson, you’re right, and Foord did mention that in our interview. I’ve updated the post with the correction. Thank you.

  8. 8 Jordan Melnick said at 10:03 am on September 4th, 2011:

    Update: The NYT writes about the potential danger to the reefs posed by the port expansion.

  9. 9 geniusofdespair said at 10:48 am on September 7th, 2011:

    Nice job.

    What do you think of the port tunnel excavation….
    That giant bore is digging through Swiss cheese like limestone and chemicals will have to be added to the surrounding limestone bedrock. I am not much on science but that is how I understand it. This curtain wall they have to construct will be massive and the polymer could be deadly to your endangered coral. What do you think?

  10. 10 Jordan Melnick said at 4:00 pm on September 7th, 2011:

    All of the Port of Miami construction going on and in the offing is on a scale that must have a detrimental environmental impact. The question is, Is it worth it? The way I see it, opening the port to Panamax ships represents one economic vision for Miami, a vision with reasonable proponents (and, of course, avaricious boosters). Protecting the coral and the environment in general represents another. SoFla’s natural beauty is not merely a perk of living here. It drives our tourism industry and the coral in particular does much to maintain our fisheries. In other words, the local environment is a major economic engine, perhaps more powerful than the Port of Miami. It would be nice if our politicians and business leaders had an affinity for nature, but, in lieu of that, their affinity for profit should make them realize the value of the Everglades, the Bay, and all the wildlife therein. But they don’t. It’s as if they lack the imagination to envision money coming from anything but a machine.

  11. 11 swampthing said at 12:23 pm on September 12th, 2011:

    The nexus of art and science, pride of the swamp.

  12. 12 john eastman said at 5:12 pm on September 12th, 2014:

    I am a native. I have been diving miami my entire life. I can tell you I have seen Govt. Cut dredged about 5 times in my life. Each time the reef is degraded. It is now to the point that 99% of the reefs north of the Cut are dead zones. None of this matters to big money. Now they are dumping spoil into the north bay. Insanity! The grasses in this area have been stressed and in recession for 20 years. Now they are being silted. Brilliant! Throw your anchor in the wrong spot or catch a fish 1/2″ too small and you will see the wrath of FWC. Nuke the reefs with silt and kill all the living creatures and you get a pass because the money at the top is fattening themselves. The beach renourishment projects have also killed off the inshore life and forever clouded the water. You bastards can all burn in hell!


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