Miles teams up with local foundation to save coral reefs
Palm Beach State College Professor Jessica Miles, Ph.D., is getting her feet wet for an important cause.
Miles is leading a research study known as “The Reef Hope Project,” while on sabbatical leave this fall to help environmental scientists discover ways to help keep earth’s underwater rainforests alive.
As part of the project, Miles is going 60 feet under to analyze and experiment with over two hundred artificial coral reefs built by the Andrew “Red” Harris Foundation 1.5 miles northeast from the Jupiter Inlet. She is among six PBSC professors awarded sabbatical leave to do projects during the 2017-18 academic year.
“I’ve read about the deterioration of the world’s reefs and understand how serious it is,” said Miles, chair of the Environmental Science department. “To be a part of this project means the world to me. It’s something I’m very passionate about. To know about reef decline and then be able to help in the efforts to reverse that is something I want to tell my grandchildren about.”
Before teaming up with the foundation, Miles was developing her own concept to build an artificial reef. Hoping to partner with Palm Beach County’s Environmental Research Management department, she called them for assistance. ERM suggested she contact the Foundation, created by Scott and Martha Harris, and they began working together immediately.
“The Harris family had already done the legwork in building the reefs, and I wanted to incorporate some of my Reef Hope Project curriculum initiatives at their site. It was truly a win-win situation,” Miles said.
The foundation has built and placed 236 one-ton coral reef structures off the Jupiter Inlet between four boulder pile reefs. The reefs, which are deployed by Palm Beach County’s ERM department, are being placed to honor the memory of their son, Andrew, who was killed at age 26 when he was struck by a boat while snorkeling on June 8, 2014.
According to Scott, Andrew loved to fish, snorkel, scuba dive and just be out on the ocean. Because of this, the Harris family hopes to enhance the waters he loved and to ensure that he will not be forgotten.
To raise money, they’ve held golf and tennis tournaments and many other events to build the reefs, some of which were sculpted by local businesses such as Marc Collette’s Artistic Stone Company in Jupiter.
Because of these efforts, Miles is now studying three different types of artificial structures between the boulder pile reefs: fish block houses made out of cement blocks; coral heads made out of rebar and mesh and sprayed with gunite or concrete and limestone pyramids.
“We are so pleased to have environmental experts like Dr. Miles partner with us to research our reefs,” said Scott Harris. “She, along with other community supporters, are really helping us reach our goals to ensure the long-term health of the oceans.”
According to Miles, the reefs will change over time. She and the Harris family hope that they will transform into abundant sea life neighborhoods where colonies of all types of organisms live, and where fish, sharks and sea turtles make their home.
Getting students involved
Palm Beach State faculty and students will also benefit from the site as Miles is partnering with the art, engineering technology and biotechnology departments to develop interdisciplinary curriculum and activities.
One student project will be to compare the different structure types to determine what varieties of life each attracts.
“Sometimes, different organisms benefit from different shaped structures, so it’s good to have diversity.”
Miles also hopes to work with the engineering technology department to add electricity to some of the units one day. According to her, studies have shown that organisms with calcareous structures, like corals and oysters, have their growth stimulated when they are in the presence of low voltage electricity. This electrical current also is purported to increase larval settlement.
“Ultimately, we want the sites to be an example for others around the world who might want to do something similar to help restore coral populations in their area,” Miles said.
Last month, Miles went scuba diving for the first time at the site, which has become a hot spot for diving enthusiasts, with PBSC Professor Rick Householder. During the dive, they gathered information for her program’s Geographic Information Systems class to create a map of the reef.
Helping her were PBSC students, including student trustee Joseph Morel, who created an initial map from her information during the Math & Science Institute program last summer. Over time, students in the GIS class will be able to add various data layers to it to understand how the reef is growing and changing.
Scott Harris captained the boat that led them to the reefs.
“Scott has just been an excellent partner. He has really turned tragedy into something amazing,” Miles said.
Miles is also partnering with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s international global research project to save the world’s reefs. As part of the project, she and students from the engineering technology department assembled and put two Autonomous Reef Monitoring systems (ARMs) on the reefs before they were deployed in the ocean. Another three ARMS will be placed near the Jupiter Lighthouse Outstanding Natural Area in shallow water in the very near future.
The systems will be deployed for three years, and then recollected and analyzed to determine the local species biodiversity that living in and on them.
“They’re actually like beautiful pieces of artwork when you bring them up and look at the colorful encrusting organisms creating a mosaic on the ARMS plates,” said Miles.
Next year, the foundation plans to submerge a 16-foot, 10-ton replica of the Jupiter Lighthouse 55 feet underwater about a mile out from the Inlet as a Town of Jupiter ecotourism attraction.
In addition to the lighthouse, Scott and his family hope to add more reefs off the Inlet, as well as initiate some on-shore projects. Their next fundraiser is a golf tournament Oct. 21 at the Jupiter Country Club.
For more information about the foundation, visit www.andrewredharrisfoundation.org. For more information on PBSC’s Environmental Science Technology program, visit www.palmbeachstate.edu/programs/EnvironmentalScience.