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NEWS | July 20, 2023

STEWARDS OF THE SEA: NUWC Division Newport’s Coral Mitigation Team keeps AUTEC pier construction project on schedule by relocating rare coral

By NUWC Division Newport Public Affairs

When it was determined last year that sections of a pier at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Newport’s Atlantic Undersea and Test Evaluation Center’s (AUTEC) on Andros Island in the Bahamas needed to be replaced and repaired, the project wasn’t as simple as it seemed on the surface.

Coral colonies that grew on the underwater pier structures over decades included species of coral that were designated as rare or threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and therefore required protection in accordance with the Environmental Final Governing Standards (FGS) for the Bahamas.

Divers and scientists from NUWC Division Newport collaborated with the Naval Information Warfare Center (NIWC) Pacific Littoral Dive Unit, NIWC Pacific Scientific divers, and AUTEC to safely remove and relocate the coral.

The Coral Mitigation Team’s work was led by Natasha Dickenson, a marine scientist with Division Newport’s Environmental Branch in the Corporate Operations Department. The coral mitigation was performed April 19–29, 2022, but planning was required well in advance and analysis of the mitigation was conducted afterwards.

“A considerable amount of work goes into planning an effort like this, from coordinating dive support, ordering and shipping materials, and sample design,” Dickenson said. “We applied what we learned from a coral mitigation project the previous year for Harrison Wharf, which made this project more seamless.”

Following the field work, data was compiled and analyzed, and a technical report was generated, describing the mitigation efforts and providing an initial assessment of the translocated coral species and relocation sites.

Corals were systematically removed from the pier by divers using chisels and hammers. Removed coral was gently placed in plastic crates, allowing the coral to remain in seawater until ready to be transferred to the range vessel. Harvested colonies were placed in totes filled with seawater and secured on the boat during transport. The totes were kept shaded by the vessel canopy and tote lids if necessary so that the colonies could remain completely submerged in water with a constant temperature and frequent water replenishment to increase the chances of survivability.

Multiple locations along the Andros Barrier Reef, the third longest fringing barrier reef in the world, were evaluated by the team in order to select one or more sites for coral translocation. Based on the selection criteria and the time allotted, two sites that were less than three miles from the pier were selected as the most suitable. More than one site was used to reduce risk in case one site becomes heavily impacted by a weather event or more susceptible to a hazard, such as a pollutant discharge. Also, if one site proves to be more successful for coral survival and growth, that site may be selected for future mitigation efforts.

At their new sites, the coral colonies were placed at similar depths as their origination.

Frank McNeilly, an environmental engineer and Navy diver with NUWC’s Engineering and Diving Support Unit (EDSU), assisted the NIWC Pacific divers in the physical removal of the corals from the pier and subsequent translocation to new sites.

The three protected species identified to be present on the pier structures were mountainous star coral, lobed star coral, and elliptical star coral.

“It was rewarding to relocate endangered and threatened coral species to help the Navy be a good steward of the seas,” McNeilly said.

McNeilly, who has had more than 300 dives with the NUWC EDSU team in his career, said the project wasn’t without its challenges.

“The visibility in the water at AUTEC is great, but the weather can be challenging,” McNeilly said.

“Heavy winds often hampered our efforts outside of the harbor, so we had to be efficient with our time when the winds allowed.”

McNeilly was also heavily involved in determining material and shipping needs, as well as data collection and contributing to the technical report.

William “Woody” Monaco, head of the Infrastructure Support Branch, played a significant role on the team behind the scenes by submitting the necessary documentation for the replacement of the badly deteriorating pier and securing the funding for the replacement of the pier. 

“Woody’s environmental knowledge helped ensure that the proper measures were taken to put a conservation effort into the contract, so that mitigation efforts for the coral could be executed,” Dickenson said. “With Woody’s understanding of the requirements and regulations, and with an urgency for an operational pier, he worked with Amir Kanel of NUWC’s AUTEC Detachment to scope out a project. Their work decreased the timeline for a fully operational pier by years.”

Patti Findlay, a chemical engineer with AUTEC, was instrumental in getting the mitigation project off the ground. She assisted by arranging vessel availability, travel, and conveying AUTEC specific rules and procedures to the team. Findlay ensured the team’s needs were met and that the project kept moving forward.

“Luckily, Patti was helping us and has a great relationship with many people on the island,” McNeilly said. “We had to configure the small open boat assigned to us to delicately store the coral for transport out to the reef. We tried building a metal cage that would mount on the side of the boat, but ended up using a plastic shipping box and buckets to keep each coral colony separate and safe on deck. Patti was able to get us the materials we needed.”

NUWC Newport is the oldest warfare center in the country, tracing its heritage to the Naval Torpedo Station established on Goat Island in Newport Harbor in 1869. Commanded by Capt. Chad Hennings, NUWC Newport maintains major detachments in West Palm Beach, Florida, and Andros Island in the Bahamas, as well as test facilities at Seneca Lake and Fisher's Island, New York, Leesburg, Florida, and Dodge Pond, Connecticut.

Join our team! NUWC Division Newport, one of the 20 largest employers in Rhode Island, employs a diverse, highly trained, educated, and skilled workforce. We are continuously looking for engineers, scientists, and other STEM professionals, as well as talented business, finance, logistics and other support experts who wish to be at the forefront of undersea research and development. Please connect with NUWC Division Newport Recruiting at this site- https://www.navsea.navy.mil/Home/Warfare-Centers/NUWC-Newport/Career-Opportunities/ and follow us on LinkedIn @NUWC-Newport and on Facebook @NUWCNewport.