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Researchers will study how to best support Florida mangrove and coral reef ecosystems

Reflection of red mangrove trees in the water with a white bird to left and an oyster bed between them during low tide. The white clouds and blue sky are also reflected on the water.
Jessica Meszaros
/
WUSF Public Media
Red mangroves at Upper Tampa Bay Park.

At a time when developers are cutting down mangroves and building in such a way that's harming coral reefs, scientists will work with community members on solutions and policy changes.

A team of researchers led by the University of South Florida is getting $20 million from the National Science Foundation to develop solutions to protect and replenish coral reef and mangrove ecosystems.

Coral reefs and mangroves safeguard our coasts by reducing flooding, erosion and wave intensity during storms. They also provide habitat for marine life.

Mangroves serve as fish nurseries, and coral reefs help fish hideout, as well. So, in terms of the benefit to biodiversity, these are two really important ecosystems.

But mangroves are removed for development and coral reefs are threatened by pollution and rising temperatures.

Now, USF is collaborating with University of Miami, Boston University, Stanford University, University of California Santa Cruz, University of Virgin Islands and East Carolina University to combine natural features with artificial infrastructure to help these ecosystems thrive.

The scientists will look into hybrid models for coral reef and mangrove restoration, such as using concrete or cement to assist in mangrove planting so that they are protected and able to grow.

“If they're degraded systems or systems that have been destroyed in the past, are there ways in which one can restore those areas?” asked lead scientist Maya Trotz, a professor at USF’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

“What would it cost? Who needs to be at the table to make sure that that intervention is protected and at work? How would you design those interventions so that local communities really have a say in what the design look like?”

She said over the next five years, her team will focus on Biscayne Bay in Miami because they want input from diverse community members.

"The idea of working closer with communities and collecting new information: Are there additional things that we should be considering when we start to talk about equity?" Trotz said.

They’ll also spend time analyzing the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef Complex in Belize and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Workshops and meetings are planned in each location every year for residents to share their experiences and to add their input into conversations identifying solutions.

Although the research will be based out of South Florida and the Caribbean Sea, Trotz said the findings will translate to Florida's Gulf Coast and beyond.

“In Tampa Bay, we have mangroves, we have concerns about sea level rise, we have concerns about flooding and the risks to our properties,” Trotz said. “The lessons learned should be able to apply to any reef-lined or … mangrove-lined coastal system.”

Trotz so far has a team of about 20 but she’s currently hiring to double that number. The project is expected be completed by the end of August 2027.

“I hope that from this study, we have a better way to build research and action within communities to address issues related to protecting their coasts, that integrate nature-based solutions in a more holistic way than is probably done right now,” Trotz said.

“At a time when we're also seeing a lot of developments and a lot of development that is pretty much cutting these mangroves down, and that are building in such a way that they're harming coral reefs … it's sort of like, how do you amplify that importance to developers, and the persons who are part of that development before it's too late when we still do have some of these ecosystems in existence?”

Since 2012, I’ve been a voice on public radio stations across Florida - in Miami, Fort Myers, and now Tampa.