Surprise coral rescue mission uncovered during Don’t Trash Our Treasure report

This week we bring you a surprising twist to Don’t Trash Our Treasure as we went out to cover one story and stumbled upon an even bigger more pressing situation.

MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. – This week we bring you a surprising twist to Don’t Trash Our Treasure as we went out to cover one story and stumbled upon an even bigger more pressing situation.

Colonies of threatened corals were about to be decimated had our Local 10 Cameras not been there with a team of researchers and scientists at the right place, at the right time.

What started out as a peaceful morning on Biscayne Bay with a team of NOAA scientists to monitor the thriving urban coral reefs near Port Miami quickly turned into an urgent coral rescue operation.

But let’s start at the beginning: In early June, a seawall collapsed at 40 Star Island on Miami Beach. It happened when the property owner began permitted work to make improvements to the 100 year old structure on land using vinyl sheet piling, not anticipating that torrential rains would weaken the foundation, and cause the sea wall to crumble right into the bay.

It was a catastrophic event for the urban corals that for 100 years had been living on that very sea wall. The majority of them did not survive.

“It was truly devastating,” said Michael Studivan, an assistant scientist at the University of Miami’s Cooperative Institute of Marine and Atmospheric Studies and NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory. “When this seawall collapsed, it flattened everything that was living on it underneath. And so there was no chance of survival, those corals were lost.”

But not all of them.

NOAA was able to save 36 of those urban corals and in August transplanted 15 of them to the Coral City Camera Reef off Port Miami, where today they continue to thrive.

“So far, they’re looking great,” said Colin Foord, co-founder of coral Morphlogic. “The first couple of days after transplantation are the most critical.”

But when we joined the NOAA team to survey 40 Star Island last Thursday, scientists were surprised to find contractors on site, getting ready to rebuild the collapsed sea wall.

This was alarming because any type of construction in the tidal flow would impact living corals on the adjacent property.

“These species are particularly threatened,” said NOAA visiting postdoc researcher Keir Macartney. “And so we want to remove those species that need higher levels of conservation and ensure they thrive.”

Miami-Dade’s Department Of Environmental Resources Management was not notified and did not authorize the work:

“Please note that the contractor and/or property owner have not obtained a Class 1 permit from our department to install a new seawall at this time. Work to install a new seawall shall not be occurring and DERM will be contacting the contractor immediately,” wrote Luis Fernandez, DERM Project Supervisor.

There was no time to waste, as there were still living corals there that needed to be saved.

The NOAA team was able to recover four living colonies, corals that would have otherwise been lost at a time when climate change and stony coral disease have wiped out more than 90 percent of Florida’s total coral cover.

But not the corals that were saved by NOAA. Miami’s urban corals are somehow thriving in the most challenging of conditions: pollution from the land, the constant flow of nutrients into the bay, warmer temperatures and a more acidic ocean.

“These urban reefs are truly a goldmine for both understanding how corals can survive in variable environments, but also in how we can help corals survive in a changing climate,” said Studivan.

This mission was not expected, and the team did not have the proper coolers and equipment to safely transport the corals back to the lab, so enter Colin Foord.

He manages the urban reef across the bay at the Coral City camera at Port Miami.

He adopted the first batch of rescued corals back in August and was only too willing to provide safe haven for these new coral refugees.

“I’m very hopeful for these corals,” he said. “We have a place that the corals clearly do quite well in their natural habitat, and the scientists are able to rescue them as soon as possible.”

And so the corals were on their way to a new life across the bay, where scientists believe they may hold the key to saving the world’s dying coral reefs.

That’s why this accidental mission was so important.

“We had a day to get those four or five corals out of the water before they put a sea wall in,” said Macartney. “We did get lucky. I don’t know if we would have gotten them if we hadn’t come out today.”

Local 10 reached out to the property owner at 40 star island, who says he applied for an emergency permit to repair the seawall 4 months ago. But DERM says that’s not accurate and that the department has not received his request for authorization to rebuild the seawall. DERM only granted a permit for temporary shoreline stabilization methods which DERM says were fully implemented by his contractor October 26th.

But if something good came of this, it’s an establishing of a communication protocol between regulating agencies and the research community so that when something like this happens again, and it will, the necessary team can be deployed immediately to rescue those very precious corals.

We need them. Every last one of them.

About the Author:

Louis Aguirre is an Emmy-award winning journalist who anchors weekday newscasts and serves as WPLG Local 10’s Environmental Advocate.