I researched different restoration methods to help the ailing natural coral reefs. There was a variety of options previously used to create an artificial reef, from concrete slabs and rubber car tires, to sunken ships and other vehicles. But, I also found that these options also had environmental repercussions. The materials were not marine friendly, often releasing polluting chemicals into the water. Sunken vehicles and ships were not stable over time. They eventually broke apart and in the process destroyed the corals that took so long to grow.
I continued my research and found an environmentally sound method to construct the artificial reef – Reef Balls (Reef Innovations, Inc.). I developed my project under the direction of DERM (Department of Environmental Resources Management). DERM provided several candidate permitted artificial reef sites along the southeast coast of Florida. DERM assisted in the survey and selection of the final site at Oleta State Recreation Area. DERM also provided expertise and contacts to help with the construction and deployment of the artificial reefs.
The project began small enough: to create and deploy an artificial reef site in the waterways off Oleta River State Park and develop an edu-tainment program to present to middle and high school age students. While discussing it with my advisor, Allan Phipps, we identified opportunities to expand the project. The idea of making two separate sites for scientific research purposes was proposed. This ultimately led to the construction over 30 reef balls. After talking with DERM the second site was selected: an offshore site about 1 mile east of Golden Beach. Both sites are in Miami-Dade County.
There have been two phases to this project. The first phase of the project was creating and deploying the artificial Reef Balls at Oleta and offshore. The second phase has been involved with increasing community awareness. I developed educational programs and community presentations to encourage people to ACT NOW – and change their actions that are affecting our reef system.
To date, I have been able to directly present programs to over 500 students and community members, have involved over 200 volunteers providing over 4500 service hours at various parts of my project, and have received cash and in-kind donations and grants totaling over $40,000!
Coral Reef Awareness edu-tainment programs have been presented at three levels – elementary, middle, and high school. Edu-tainment is used to present educational concepts (such as science and math) using innovative and interactive methods. I have also presented at teacher workshops for K-12 teachers from Broward and Miami-Dade County. In these outreach programs, we are constructing Reef Balls to be added to the Oleta reef site.
I am also monitoring and recording the progress of the “planted” Reef Balls. In the months since the deployment I have noticed some natural fish and other native species have returned to the area. Small fish and other marine life are using the Reef Balls as a secure marine habitat. With time I hope there will be an abundance of water plants that will encourage the continued repopulation to the currently vacant area.
The impacts and benefits of my project to the community and the nation’s water resources are far reaching. Educational programs have been used to heighten community awareness to the importance of preserving our ocean ecosystems. Community agencies and organizations have come together with the common goal of improving the environment. Oleta River State Recreation Area and the offshore site benefits with clearer and healthier waterways. The park will experience an increase in fish population and thus increased fishing.
Students and community members participating in the program benefit by an increased understanding of human impact on the environment through various activities and experiments. They learn about artificial reefs, why they are important, and how they are designed. Participants make edible coral polyps, interact with marine creatures in ‘petting zoo’ format, test water samples they collected themselves and learn about the importance of the ocean and clean water while participating in a habitat restoration Service-Learning project. Older students are introduced to waterway legislation and learn about environmentally responsible diving and boating. I also take advantage of the estuaries in the area to conduct tours of Florida’s ecosystems and show participants the unique creatures of the area. Participants learn about the various career opportunities relating to the environment. My project has provided ongoing learning experiences and service opportunities at no or very low cost.
I am experiencing another important aspect of community project development – How to provide for the future. In my project proposal, I planned only to teach small groups of students. The educational programs have been expanded to be an ongoing outreach program developed in cooperation with several community groups. I have received several grants including a $6,000.00 grant from Florida Department of Education to continue my project.
I developed the Operation Reef Ball booklets and activity guides for distribution to teachers, Scout leaders, and community groups. Leaders can conduct hands-on activities with their kids in order to teach them about the importance of coral reef ecosystems. The activities will hopefully inspire others to look in their own communities for unique opportunities to make a difference in their environment.
Let us not forget the direct impact of this project on the environment. Coral reef degradation is a serious problem. The reefs are dying at an alarming rate. South Florida coral reef eco-systems provide a window into the health of the watershed systems so important to our way of life. This project hopes to mitigate some of the damage that has been done in the past.
The artificial reef site at Oleta is situated in an area that was left barren by dredging and other waterway “improvements”. The Reef Balls created for this project serve as a stable substrate for coral population and marine life. As the sites are populated they will provide filtering of the intracoastal water – improving the overall water quality. The protected habitat will encourage the population of numerous fish species improving the sport fishing opportunities at Oleta. The offshore artificial reef site will similarly benefit from the use of Reef Balls. We are now investigating coral transplantation programs to help re-populate the offshore site.