Project Baitfish and the Ongoing Restoration of Matheson Hammock

This article was written in 2003 in the middle of the project and is kept here for its historical value. An update is forthcoming.

An Introduction to WRT's Habitat Restoration Project at Matheson Hammock Park in Coral Gables, Florida

Andrew's Toothpick, a telephone pole blown by hurricane winds into the treetops. Photo by Donna Kazo

The 629-acre Matheson Hammock Park/R. Hardy Matheson Preserve is home to the last mangrove forest in urban Miami-Dade County, Florida, located in Coral Gables, a fast-growing heavily developed city. To the south it is bordered by Snapper Creek, to the east lies Biscayne Bay, which has been designated as a Habitat of Particular Concern (HAPC) in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSFCMA) of 1996. Mangrove forests are nurseries for hundreds of species of fish which upon maturity will leave these safe havens for the open sea, and are therefore, designated as Essential Fish Habitat (EFH). This preserve was, until 1992, a vital high-volume feeding, breeding, and spawning habitat of anadromous and marine fish, baitfish, and marine reptiles (sea turtle). Its tidal creeks led home to one of the nation's largest migration habitat of horseshoe crabs (Limulus polyphemus). Wading birds en masse historically use this location to lay over on their migratory trips north and south. Manatees find this area comfortable in storm weather and summer retreat. Saltwater crocodiles have been observed feeding within a corridor recently opened by Wildlife Research Team. Matheson Hammock Park, on the northern boundary of the Preserve, is enjoyed by thousands of people every year for swimming, wading, fishing, kayaking, canoeing, sunbathing, jogging, bicycling, birdwatching, and just enjoying nature. A large marina is part of the park complex, north of the mangrove preserve.

Mangrove fringe at Matheson Hammock

This imperiled Preserve of Miami-Dade County's mangrove forest is the last remaining emerald jewel that has escaped the long concrete seawalls that border congested urban Miami. WRT's planned project is to restore this delicate acreage back into a fully functional, tide flow estuary that enhances the propagation of living flora, fauna and fish. WRT's ongoing objective is to create a conservation-oriented educational spectrum which can be experienced throughout the community. Hands-on and observational enlightenment have proven to be excellent mentors for students of all age and study. WRT's conservation efforts will re-establish this habitat as a university of biodiversity for all who care to study, look, or listen within its confines.

Pressure from urbanization, loss of natural water flow, and pollution were just some of the critical problems already faced by this habitat, when in August 1992 Hurricane Andrew struck its shores with full force, flattening the entire mangrove forest and choking all tidal creeks with fallen trees and other storm debris. The area immediately south and west of Matheson Hammock was hardest hit in Dade County, and almost all attention afterwards was focused on restoring homes to displaced residents. Very little consideration could be paid to the decimated mangrove habitat of Matheson Hammock Park. All over Dade, rampant exotic vines and other undesirable foliage took advantage of the destruction of forest canopy to overrun the piles of debris and dead trees, changing forever the balance of nature, and smothering young native growth.

Although the fringe mangroves were the first to begin a very slow recovery, just a few yards beyond all was chaos. Tidal creeks were clogged with submerged trees. The cleansing effects of natural tidal flow became restricted to the point of stagnation in most areas. Coastal cleanups took place in the ensuing years but were of minimal effectiveness as they only were able to reach outlying trash and flotsam, and were unable to penetrate the paralyzed mangrove root system. (These cleanups were partnerships between state and local agencies and WRT.) Powered craft found the habitat impregnable due to shallow water, twisted broken flora, and amassed debris from not only Andrew but cumulative trash and damage from succeeding storms. High tides enabled passage over some submerged debris, but trees fallen over the waterways entangled explorers.

The South Corridor in 1999

Beginning in 1993, with cooperation and encouragement from Dr. Jeff West, manager of Matheson Hammock Park, Wildlife Research Team began the struggle to open several old canoe trails (trails which had initially been created in the 1960s by Dr. Tom Kazo), mainly for the purpose of hazardous material removal post-Andrew. These trails followed natural tidal creeks. However, without proper equipment and sufficient funding, gaining access to the interior of the Preserve proved to be extremely demanding, if not impossible.

In the summer of 1994, Dr. Kazo and a small group of volunteers began the planting of red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle) seedlings adjacent to the Preserve, in Biscayne Bay, thus forming the beginning of an access corridor to the habitat when the sea is too rough for safe passage by canoe. After nine years of steady growth, these mangroves have formed a respectful habitat and refuge of their own, and serve WRT's purpose well.

In October of 2001, with grant funding from FishAmerica Foundation (a partner with NOAA's Restoration Center), Wildlife Research Team was finally able to begin a concerted effort to unclog the natural baitfish corridors. This became what WRT calls Project Baitfish. In October of 2002, NOAA's Community Restoration Program (CRP) awarded WRT further funds to restore this habitat. Once inside the mangrove forest, WRT members found that the damage from Hurricane Andrew was even more extensive than thought or believed. Complete devastation of the habitat has left it in fragile and chaotic condition, even after more than a decade of what should have been some degree of recuperation. Except in those areas where WRT has been working, recovery to date has been minimal. Thousands of downed trees still clog the waterways. Each obstruction is evaluated and then removed by hand, from WRT's canoes, when tidal conditions permit entry into the site. Some areas can be reached and cleared during low tide, others only during high tide. This hands-on and time-consuming approach is non-invasive and designed to minimize damage to the already sensitive ecosystem.

Blockage at Matheson Hammock, 2001

It was found by observing other sites of restoration that native flora and fauna are often damaged or destroyed by mechanical and harsh methods of removal. Canoes allow a non-polluting approach and give time to thoroughly and respectfully evaluate the fragile condition of the habitat. Adjustments are then made, and again the area can be monitored, discovering the ways it can be restored to its natural fruitfulness. By applying this "hands-on" method and allowing nature to aid in its own recovery, a stronger and more secure habitat is formed.

What Only the Canoe Can Do

The canoe is uniquely suited to restoration projects as this vessel causes no pollution, and no damage to low water flora or fish. Fieldwork by Wildlife Research Team has proven that canoes are noiseless and are a superb base of noninvasive operations, observations, and monitoring. Canoes can be used for every task— a fulcrum to break free submerged obstructions, a workbase, a floating dock, a trash hauler. Certain of WRT's canoes have carried upwards of 1,000 pounds in just a few inches of water. Extra canoes can be towed with ease aiding in the removal of debris. They are powered by human strength and of such design that they can enter areas where fossil fuel motors cannot. Of course they are very fuel efficient— they use none.

WRT members working at Matheson

The havoc wreaked upon this unique mangrove forest by Hurricane Andrew, aided and abetted by manmade pollution, has perilously endangered this essential fish habitat. Extensive urbanization and overdevelopment have altered the natural freshwater runoff so vital to a healthy estuarine system. Debris removal in areas of freshwater flow is already helping to restore the much-needed balance of this endangered and essential estuary. Wildlife Research Team has developed cost-effective strategies and techniques over the years to perform cleanups and reconstruction of ecosystems adversely affected by urbanization, pollution, and/or storm damage. These proven methods are based on the philosophy, "First, do no harm." This initial mindset is immediately followed by the guidelines, "Monitor, evaluate, adjust, and then remonitor." Each barrier to water flow is evaluated individually. Canoes may be used as fulcrums to lever out critical logs and clear underwater obstructions. WRT's all-volunteer crews either work from the canoes or wade cautiously, as the substrate may be treacherous with trash. Sinkholes are common hazards. Tide charts are always consulted by Dr. Kazo as to the optimum tide level for efficient activity. Crews may often find themselves using hand saws beneath the surface of the water. The channels are first opened, then log by log the accumulated debris along the edges of the corridor is paddled out to a pickup area. Brad Malehorn and Kevin Rapczynski

Wildlife Research Team's five-year goal for Matheson Hammock's mangrove ecosystem is the restoration of this unique and historic Preserve back to a balanced and healthy estuarine habitat that will nurture countless fish, invertebrates, birds, mammals, and endangered creatures seeking safe harbor such as sea turtles, manatees, and yes, even saltwater crocodiles. The first phase, that of unclogging the system, is still under way. Results of WRT's concentrated efforts to clear tidal creeks and baitfish corridors have proven to be exponential. There has been improvement of water quality and clarity, increased tidal flush and enhanced foliage growth. There are significant numbers of fish where two years ago there was only stagnation. Replanting of red mangroves and endangered sea grasses is part of the program, and these are scheduled as the situation merits.

Community Commitment and Partnership Development

Wildlife Research Team (WRT) was founded as an all-volunteer grassroots, community-based organization in 1992, in Dade County, Florida, by Dr. Tom Kazo, Ph.D. (Eth.) and Donna McVicar Cannon. Since its inception, this unique group has used only non-powered canoes for all of its diversified environmental projects. It was incorporated in 2001 as a non-profit 501(c) organization, and subsequently designated by the Internal Revenue Service as the nation's only all-volunteer educational foundation. WRT has taken on numerous projects over the years to enhance and restore the waterways and habitats of Florida, on its own, and in partnership with entities such as the City of Miami Springs (neighborhood waterway system cleanups); SEA Grant/University of Florida, (Whiskey Creek in Ft. Lauderdale, Bird Island off Key Biscayne); DERM (North Fork, Miami River, and Oleta Park); Broward Urban River Trails (BURT) (North fork of New River, and the New River proper); Broward County, DPEP (North fork, New River); Broward County, (North fork, New River); Florida Atlantic University (New River), Florida International University (environmental science programs), Miami Historical Society, Girl Scouts/Brownies/Boy Scouts/Sea Scouts, NOAA, and, through NOAA, FishAmerica Foundation. WRT's amassed volunteer pool is deep, ranges far, and encompasses available expertise to equal the strata of humankind.

Rose Resendez and Robert Council

Some of these entities have provided donations to WRT of cash and/or supplies. Broward County Board of Commissioners pledged $700 to help WRT with operating expenses incurred during several community-based cleanups, mainly on the North fork of New River in Fort Lauderdale. A number of WRT canoes have been donations, some from private individuals and several from Mohawk Canoe in Longwood, Florida. A fully outfitted 12-foot Boston Whaler with new outboard motor, and trailer, was donated to Wildlife Research Team; and a private individual donated a 22-foot open cruising boat (with a new 130 HP Evinrude motor) with the intention of WRT's use of it in its student programs. Four boat trailers have been donated and have been restructured into canoe trailers. Private cash donations are consistent from the community.

The mission of WRT has always been to share its discoveries of the tenacity and wonder of Nature with the entire spectrum of community members. Several canoes have been fitted with special equipment to enable handicapped persons to enjoy the same buoyant pleasures as those without disability. The WRT motto is "You point, we paddle," so that everyone can enjoy a stress-free voyage, powered only by the muscle of experienced volunteer guides. Programs have been implemented for students from elementary school on up to postgraduate level, to include revitalizing courses for teachers, so that all might gain first-hand knowledge of the various ecosystems of Florida— ocean, urban, Everglades, river, lake, wetland. Dr. Kazo is often requested as a guest speaker and lecturer in all levels of academia throughout Florida.

Rose Resendez and Robert Council

Wildlife Research Team began recovery work on Matheson Hammock as early as 1993 in a cooperative effort with Miami-Dade County Parks and Recreation director Dr. Jeff West, who manages Matheson Hammock Park. County budgets and manpower were never adequate to engage such a labor-intensive project in this huge preserve. Up until October 2001, all costs of restoration were borne by WRT, with help from donations from private individuals. As of November 1, 2003, FishAmerica has awarded WRT with two grants, and NOAA with two as well. The most recent NOAA grant is to restore the still-clogged mangrove fringe forest between the north and south corridor system openings.

Doug and Adrian Andrade

Recognition of Project Baitfish and our "Dr. Tom"

On Thursday, May 01, 2003, NOAA's Restoration Center published this press release:

Earth Day Events 2003

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration this year presented its Environmental Hero Award to 35 individuals and one organization from across the United States and around the world. Held in conjunction with Earth Day celebrations, the award honors NOAA volunteers for their "tireless efforts to preserve and protect our nation's environment."

"NOAA and the nation are fortunate to have such dedicated people volunteer so much of their time," said retired Navy Vice Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Ph.D., Undersecretary of Commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator. "They set a perfect example for others to follow in their communities. America needs more environmental heroes like them."

Established in 1995 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Earth Day, the Environmental Hero award is presented to individuals and organizations that volunteer their time and energy to help NOAA carry out its mission. Previous recipients include oceanographers Jean-Michel Cousteau and Sylvia Earle, and actor Ted Danson, head of the American Oceans Campaign.

"On behalf of the 12,500 men and women working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, I am pleased to present you with this 2003 Environmental Hero Award," Lautenbacher wrote in a letter to the recipients. "Your dedicated efforts and outstanding accomplishments greatly benefit the environment and make our nation a better place for all Americans."

"Thomas F. Kazo, director of the Wildlife Research Team, Inc. in Sunrise, Fla., has employed a unique vision and approach for restoring one of the last mangrove systems in urban Miami-Dade county. Using only canoes and sheer man-power and inspiration, volunteers have already spent thousands of hours reopening intertidal corridors throughout a severely degraded 600-plus acre mangrove preserve that was devastated by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Kazo's unique approach is not only successful, but empowering. In 2001, the Wildlife Research Team was awarded a FishAmerica grant through the NOAA Restoration Center's Community-based Program to spark their efforts. What was once Kazo's unique vision has now resulted in an improvement of water quality and clarity, increased tidal flushing, enhanced vegetation, an increase in the presence of fish and even the visit of a 6-1/2' saltwater crocodile."

(Although, of course, WRT volunteers know that there are TWO American crocs who are happily living there full time!)

South Corridor, May 2003

On June 7, NOAA's Restoration Center and Wildlife Research Team, with great cooperation by Dr. Jeff West of Matheson Hammock Park, proudly hosted a "pot-luck picnic" for WRT volunteers and friends. Daphne MacFarlan, of the NOAA RC office in St. Petersburg, Florida, presented Dr. Tom Kazo with his Environmental Hero Award. WRT led a canoe tour through the northern corridor system of the Matheson project. WRT initiated a membership drive in celebration of its first decade of service to the community and environment.

WRT in the North Corridor

Photos by members of Wildlife Research Team.