Florida harbor dredging threatens corals

Mapping coral diseases is helping researchers determine the cause. Photo courtesy NOAA.
Mapping coral diseases is helping researchers determine the cause. Photo courtesy NOAA.

Activists plan lawsuit to win more environmental protection

Staff Report

Even with coral reefs around the world under the global warming gun, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is seeking approval for a controversial Florida dredging project that could smother parts of the only coastal barrier reef in the continental United States.

But a coalition of environmental and community groups have banded together to try and the the Corps to provide mandatory, common-sense protections for reefs near the Port Everglades dredging project near Fort Lauderdale. The project’s goal is to increase coastal access for larger ships.

Critics of the project say similar dredging at PortMiami injured and killed Endangered Species Act-listed staghorn corals and buried alive more than 200 football fields of reef habitat. They claim the damage stemmed from the Corps’ failure to collect and use accurate, up-to-date information or adequately account for potential impacts to nearby reefs.

The reef complex near Fort Lauderdale has declined by more than 80 percent since the 1970s, and the last few years of bleaching, dredging, and disease have put this reef tract into crisis.

There are many threats facing our precious Florida reefs, bringing them to the brink of collapse. “Many of these threats are global and difficult to control at a local level,” said Rachel Silverstein, executive director and waterkeeper of Miami Waterkeeper. “But this dredging plan is an action that we can easily control to ensure that coral reefs are protected. Despite our attempts to improve this plan over the last year, the Corps has not changed a single word of their upcoming dredging plan based on what happened in Miami.”

The Corps is seeking permission to blast rock for up to 900 days and dump about 5.47 million cubic yards of dredged material offshore, including the fine-grained sediment that can smother and harm coral. In Miami, this same sediment buried corals alive, depriving them of access to light and food, causing death, and hindering reproduction.

The activists claim that, in the Miami projct, the Corps relied on old survey data that underestimated the number of Endangered Species Act-listed corals in the project area by at least 10 times. The Corps incorrectly predicted that the fine-grained sediment stirred up by dredging would only have minor impacts to corals out less than 500 feet away from the port.

But, when the dredging project began, sediment covered reefs out to more than 3,000 feet away, smothering coral and causing partial coral death on up to 93 percent of corals in areas near dredging. In a report released last month by the National Marine Fisheries Service, federal scientists concluded that dredging was responsible for the extensive harm to reefs. The report contradicted the Corps’ claims that natural disease had caused mortality to coral in the area.

“The Corps is still relying on the same old, flawed survey that vastly underestimated the numbers of coral in Miami and the same incorrect assumptions about how far the sediment will travel,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “That’s illogical, and we are asking that they stop and rethink their assumptions.”

In a letter sent to the Corps, the groups demand that the agency comply with the Endangered Species Act and seek a second opinion from federal wildlife experts. If the Corps does not comply with the law, the coalition plans to sue the agency.

“The Corps owes it to Florida’s economy and future generations to learn from its mistakes,” said Brettny Hardy, an attorney at Earthjustice. “If the federal agencies won’t take action to protect these reefs, we will.”

The coalition also sent a letter to the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is charged with enforcing the Endangered Species Act and protecting coral in Florida. The groups ask that the Fisheries Service demand that the Corps implement better protections for coral.

Overall, Florida’s reefs are in dire trouble. Due to pervasive threats like climate change, the National Marine Fisheries Service has listed seven Caribbean species of coral as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. At least six of those species are present near Port Everglades.

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