More than two years after FIU officials initiated support from the county for a major environmental restoration project at Biscayne Bay Campus, bulldozers began clearing away invasive species to make way for mangroves.
The southwest corner of the Biscayne Bay Campus (BBC) is getting a makeover.
No longer will mangroves be choked out by the steady march of destructive invasive species. Instead university leaders have partnered with Miami-Dade County’s Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM) to restore at least five acres of wetlands and mangroves at BBC – the ultimate goal is to restore 12 – plus an adjacent 15 acres owned by Oleta River State Park.
The project includes the removal of non-native vegetation, the creation of red mangrove forests and wetlands and the enhancement of existing wetlands. The multi-phase project is expected to take two to three years to complete at an approximate cost of $800,000, according to Gary Milano, coastal habitat restoration program coordinator in DERM’s Restoration & Enhancement Section. DERM is picking up the tab for the project.
What’s all the fuss about?
When allowed to flourish, mangroves are nature’s white knights. They shield man from harmful wind and storm surges, and help communities hold the line on soil erosion. They also protect a vast variety of marine life.
“I lived in Southeast Asia and saw firsthand the importance of these ecosystems to the community and the environment,” says Jennifer Grimm, BBC’s environmental coordinator in the School of the Environment, Arts & Society and one of the driving forces behind the project. “Many people don’t know how we rely on the wetlands and the mangroves.
“South Florida’s recreational and commercial fishing industries are dependent upon healthy grouper and snapper populations,” continues Grimm. “Studies show that when the mangroves disappear, the fish populations can drastically decline.”
Widespread destruction of the state’s mangroves has led to mangrove conservation laws. (It’s estimated that more than 23,500 acres of mangroves in the state have been lost through dredging and filling, primarily to develop waterfront property.) Today it is illegal in Florida to trim, alter or remove mangroves without a permit.
Getting back on track
DERM has begun removing thousands of invasive plants including Australian pine, Brazilian pepper, Burma reed and Portia trees to make way for the mangroves and wetland plants.
But there is more to the project than that.
Non-native species such as Australian pine actually change the chemistry of the soil through their fallen needles, making it impossible for native plants and trees to grow. The soil will be removed down to sea level so that the mangroves and wetland plants can benefit from the tidal fluctuations. Grimm says plans are to use the removed soil for a future restoration project at BBC.
The project will benefit from the ongoing collaboration between the university and Alonzo & Tracy Mourning Senior High. Last year, students from both institutions worked in the high school’s greenhouse to grow seedlings from mangroves.
“Together we have planted more than 1,200 mangroves at BBC and Oleta,” says Grimm.
The project continues. Students from both schools are currently nurturing another crop of mangrove propagules, or seedlings, for planting in their new, bay-view home.
“This is a great opportunity for the university to help preserve one of Florida’s most valuable coastal resources,” says Julissa Castellanos, director of operations in the Office of the Vice Provost at BBC. Together with Grimm, she has steered the project on FIU’s end. “This project brings an educational benefit to our campus. We expect that BBC’s academic and extracurricular activities focusing on environmental stewardship will be strengthened through future cooperation with DERM.
“A long-range goal is to have a restored area on campus that will serve our students as a living laboratory,” she continues. “In the meantime, this work on campus is raising awareness of the invasive plant species that threaten our native flora and fauna.”
— By Martin Haro. Photos by Martin Haro and Emily Cochrane.