What a Gardens professor is doing to save reefs — and why they matter


The mini-apartments for aquatic life will stay submerged for about three years.

Jessica Miles and her students will study the species that attach to the structures that mimic reefs.

They will share their results with the Smithsonian and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The countless critters that dwell in the shallow waters around the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse got three new mini-apartments to call home recently, thanks to Palm Beach State College Professor Jessica Miles and her crew.

RELATED: County makes former drug ship part of artificial reef

They went to work just before dawn, preparing to dive 12 feet to the sea floor, where they bolted down three, 20-pound structures made to mimic coral reefs.

RELATED: Jupiter Inlet comes alive this week: Grouper, turtles, nurse sharks

They’re participating in a global study of biodiversity. Miles calls her research the Reef Hope Project. The status of coral is dire, she said.

Anchor damage, snorkelers who accidentally kick the reefs, warming oceans, coral bleaching and more carbon dioxide absorbed into the ocean all threaten coral, Miles said.

“I can’t emphasize enough how much we need to do more with the issue of climate change and to recognize the value of reefs, because when we have storms come through, it protects us and lessens inland flooding,” she said.

RELATED: State evaluating reported damage on coral reefs off Palm Beach

Coral reefs are the bases of the food chain, and much of the local economy depends on fishing and tourism, she said.

People need to curb carbon dioxide emissions and improve water quality that’s been hurt by pollution and runoff, Miles said.

“We can’t just sit back and hope that Mother Nature will be able to get healthy on her own,” she said.

For now, artificial reefs are sustaining fish populations and adding new niches — but it’s vital to protect natural reefs, Miles said.

Hundreds of Palm Beach State College students at the college’s Palm Beach Gardens campus will be involved by the time her research project is finished, she said.

Anchoring the reefs

Engineering students assembled the structures for her pre-dive.

Two students, a rescue diver and an adjunct professor who captained the boat joined her on a Nov. 3 dive. Other students took water samples and photographs.

Freshman Stephanie Rochefort said she lived for two years in Australia, where she saw the Great Barrier Reef, so the research project appealed to her.

“She caught my interest and sold me on it, and so far, it’s been great. It’s been more fun than anything,” Rochefort said.

Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse Outstanding Natural Area staff determined the placement of the reef modules and prepared the locations.

At the first spot on the south side of the lighthouse, Miles fought a raging current that threatened to tear away one of her flippers and caused her to drop the module. The rescue diver father of one of her students recovered it.

She was able to anchor it to a cement block with four steel legs that penetrated 18 inches into the sediment. The module, a square frame of stacked PVC plates, will stay submerged for about three years. That will give marine life such as coral and oysters a chance to attach and flourish.

The scientists fastened the second structure in a shallower location on the east side of the lighthouse in a matter of minutes. They had eight- to 10-foot visibility, and there was no current ripping them along, so they could use both hands for work, Miles said.

Natural area staff paddled out to the mangrove lagoon with the third module on a makeshift raft between two paddle boards. Miles and her team sunk the module on the north side of Beach Road, east of the lighthouse, a safe distance from the mangroves and sea grass beds.

Tracking growth

Three years from now, they will haul up the fish houses — autonomous reef monitoring structures, as they’re formally known — to study the occupants.

Biotechnology students will do genetic testing on the species they can’t visually identify and share the results with the Smithsonian Global Marine Biodiversity Project and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s coral reef monitoring program, Miles said.

Miles and her students track the locations of each of the structures using GPS. Scientists around the world are using the same autonomous reef monitoring systems so they can compare which environments are most attractive to different species of marine life.

Miles previously deployed two other modules 50 to 60 feet deep near the Andrew “Red” Harris Foundation reef about 1 1/2 miles from the Jupiter Inlet.

Miles attached five tiles made of different materials to that reef. They’ll stay under the sea for about a year. Then she’ll examine them under a microscope to determine which material supports the most coral growth.

Recreational divers can also participate; the Andrew “Red” Harris Reef structures have a unique number tag, so divers can provide information and photographs to help scientists understand how the artificial reef changes over time, she said.

The college’s Environmental Science Department staff and students will also analyze data that the Palm Beach County Reef Research Team has collected from all the natural and artificial reefs in the county since 1991, Miles said.

The Geographic Information Systems class is working on mapping the Reef Hope Project, producing data-driven maps that show the research results, she said.

Eventually, Miles wants to work with engineering technology to add electrical stimulation to some of her modules. Corals and oysters tend to settle faster and grow faster near low voltage electricity, she said.

Art and environmental students will work with local organizations to create an “EcoArt,” functional art that benefits the environmental. They will design an artificial reef that adds marine habitat and inspires people to care more about the environment, Miles said.

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