Marine science professor works to save Biscayne Bay coral reefs

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Coral reefs across the world are deteriorating, but UM is doing its part to help save the reefs closest to home. A marine science coordinator and professor, Daniel DiResta, has been leading a group of students in an effort to save the reef in Biscayne Bay for the past few years, collaborating with Biscayne National Park.

Coral reefs are not just fascinating and pretty underwater attractions, but, according to DiResta, they are directly related to the oceans’ health.

Miami’s coral reefs have primarily been damaged by boats hitting them, said DiResta.

“Some people who don’t have a lot of local knowledge end up doing boat groundings,” he said.

To combat the destruction, DiResta takes a group of 10 to 15 students over to the park to help rebuild the reef. They go about every four months, spending two consecutive Saturdays working.

“The idea is that we can rescue these fragments, grow them to reproductive size and then transplant them to the reefs,” DiResta said.

He likened the process to having a tree nursery. The coral is collected from the reefs, cut into small pieces, mounted onto a PVC rod with apoxy and then placed on small pedestals underwater.

Of the 2,000 pieces of coral DiResta hopes to collect, 400 have been added to the nursery.

The students measure the volume, weight and growth rates of the coral throughout the year. They also remove algae that build up on the PVC rods, since the algae can overtake the coral and kill it.

According to DiResta, the measurements will eventually help researchers get an idea how and why coral is affected by pollutants, ultraviolet light and global warming. For now, collecting the coral will help grow a nursery to figure out how to rehabilitate existing reefs.

“Boat groundings are only a small part of the deterioration of coral reefs,” he said. “Other one-time stressors include hurricanes, and the recent barrage of storms here in Miami has negatively affected the reef in Biscayne Bay.”

Also, global warming is a big issue because the warming of ocean waters results in bleaching, a disease that causes the coral to go white and die. Sometimes, coral cannot recover from this condition.

“That’s not something we can stop today,” DiResta said.

Together, all these problems are having a global effect on coral reefs.

“There’s not one thing you can put your finger on that harms reefs,” DiResta said.

However, there are measures that can be taken to help coral reefs survive, he added.

Maintaining fish species and water levels in reef areas will also help.

“In the Dry Tortugas and Florida Keys, no-take zones have been established, preventing fishers from taking fish,” DiResta said.

According to DiResta, responsible development will also help protect the reefs, although accommodations in industry will occasionally have to be made.

“There is a need for compromise between environmentalists and developers,” he said.

For example, dredging for ships to enter ports must be done, but booms and curtains could be erected to prevent sediment from covering the coral.

DiResta and his team of students will continue to work on the reefs for the foreseeable future. An endeavor such as this coral reef project takes upwards of 10 years to complete the restoration process.

Sam West can be contacted at