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Electrified coral reef off Florida gets federal OK

The Global Coral Reef Alliance plans a conservation project near Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. Similar projects have created marine habitat elsewhere, but their long-term benefits are unclear.

June 28, 2009|David Fleshler

LAUDERDALE-BY-THE-SEA, FLA. — A proposal to install an electrified artificial reef on the ocean floor off Lauderdale-by-the-Sea has won approval from a key federal agency, making it more likely that the high-tech conservation project will get built.

The Army Corps of Engineers issued a permit to the town to work with Massachusetts-based Global Coral Reef Alliance to install a cluster of metal structures that would use a low-voltage current to stimulate the growth of corals -- creating habitat for fish and other marine creatures. The process has been used to construct artificial reefs in several other countries, including Mexico, Jamaica and Indonesia.

Under the town's $65,000 contract with the alliance, structures that resemble 6-foot-long Quonset huts would be placed on the ocean floor in shallow water. Divers would collect pieces of living coral that had been broken off by storms or ship groundings and attach them to the metal structures. Two buoys equipped with solar panels would provide the electricity through insulated cables. The electrical current would draw dissolved minerals from the water, causing the minerals to build up on the metal structures.

According to the group's website, corals grow three to five times faster under these conditions and stand a better chance of surviving stressful events such as increases in water temperature.

But experts said that although the system could help young corals establish themselves and grow faster, it had not been subjected to rigorous study and there was no evidence that the increased growth rates would last beyond the first few months.

John McManus -- director of the National Center for Coral Reef Research at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science -- said that though he did not oppose the project, the technology "doesn't seem to do much after the first four months -- but the first four months are critical."

In an e-mail, Thomas Goreau, president of Global Coral Reef Alliance, said he had done studies comparing electrified reefs with identical structures in similar habitat without electricity, but was focused now on saving corals at a time when they're dying around the world.

"We have deliberately not published most of our results, because we are too busy getting results growing reefs full of corals and fish while there is still a dwindling window to do so," he wrote. "We prefer people to see for themselves what really works, because the results are so overwhelming."

It's unclear when the project will get built. Goreau said construction was probably several months off. Ken Banks, natural resource specialist with Broward County's Environmental Protection and Growth Management Department, said they had yet to obtain a needed permit.

Lauderdale-by-the-Sea is known as one of the best spots for beach diving because the reefs are accessible from shore. Steve d'Oliveira, spokesman for Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, said the town supported the project.

"We want it done as soon as possible," he said.

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dfleshler@sunsentinel.com

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