Ten years ago, the coral in PortMiami glistened in turquoise, fuchsia, and lavender hues. Today, much of the once colorful reef is gray, buried underneath a layer of silty sand.
This has a lot to do with the $220 million, six-year expansion at PortMiami that deepened the South Channel by eight to 10 feet to accommodate cargo ships, which just keep getting bigger.
And history might repeat itself just 28 miles north at Port Everglades, where the Florida Reef — the only living coral barrier reef in the U.S. and the third largest in the world — stands in the way of the expansion. The federal government has already allotted money for the project and it seems to be barreling ahead, despite environmentalists’ objections.
Unless you’re an avid maritime cargo enthusiast (we’re sure there are a few of you out there) you might be confused about why port expansion is important enough to, you know, destroy a coral reef. We present The Dredge Report.
PortMiami v.s. Port Everglades
The tile floor you’re sitting on. The cantaloupe you’re eating. That great bottle of wine you had last night. Ever wonder how all of these products end up in your home, your fridge, or your local bar? Unless you’re strictly buying local (in which case, right on), at some point that banana in your hand sailed across the ocean on a cargo ship, possibly passing through the Panama Canal to reach PortMiami or Port Everglades.
And much like the way you probably do your laundry or carry in your groceries from the car (as much as possible and all at once) — it’s most efficient to make big, bulk transfers of these products.
This is why cargo ships are getting bigger and fuller.
But there’s one major problem — the Panama Canal isn’t quite wide enough or deep enough to accept these ships, and neither are most of the ports. So everything’s getting bigger. And the ports that get bigger faster get the business first.
The Panama Canal expansion (which by the way has been a multi-year disaster) looks like it will finally be complete next year, which opens the eastern seaboard up to the biggest of the big. In anticipation, ports all along the east coast are rushing to be ready. Port of Virginia is the only port other than Miami that can accept these bigger ships. And if all goes well, Miami’s cargo business will rise.
When Florida committed funds to PortMiami, they hoped federal sources would reimburse them. The White House has pretty much said nope. By 2017, the port will probably have to dip into its reserves to cover some of the expenses, according to a recent Moody’s report, since the Panama Canal is not quite ready yet, nor the windfall Miami is hoping for when it is.
But Port Everglades has a lot more going for it, financially. Port Everglades anticipates $190 million in federal funding and the Panama Canal expansion expected to be done by the time Port Everglades is ready to roll.
Editor’s note: The above sentence has been adjusted to clarify funding sources.
One thing that is immediately apparent: significant devastation on our marine environment, according to Rachel Silverstein, the executive director of the Miami Waterkeeper, a non-profit environmental organization that advocates on behalf of Miami’s waterways.
Dredging projects threaten coral reef systems in a few ways. First, construction workers may have to blast through the hard limestone in the channel to begin dredging it. (This didn’t end up happening in PortMiami, but may happen in Port Everglades.) Then they have to physically remove some coral colonies. And this blasting and dredging creates sedimentation — think underwater construction dust — which settles on the colonies that haven’t been removed, effectively smothering them. In the expansion of PortMiami, the new shipping channel bisected a thriving reef.
Editor’s note: The above paragraph has been clarified to reflect construction methods.
Here’s local environmental activist Rachel Silverstein of Miami Waterkeeper, dusting off sedimentation.
For all these reasons, Waterkeeper, Dan Kipnis, Miami-Dade Reef Guard Association, and Tropical Audubon Society sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency that conducted a 2010 survey that ultimately led to approval of the project.
Editor’s note: This sentence has been corrected to reflect the groups involved in the lawsuit.
While the Army corps did transplant 1,100 coral colonies, including 38 threatened staghorn coral, the Corps study underestimated the number of staghorn coral by 10 times, according to Silverstein. Additionally, the corps anticipated sedimentation impacts on 150 acres of coral. The U.S. Army Corps admitted that sedimentation actually reached as much as as 250 acres of coral.
Editor’s note: This sentence has been adjusted to clarify the amount of coral affected.
The ongoing lawsuit says that the corps violated the Endangered Species Act and the terms outlined by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Environmentalists are in mediation with the Army Corps, with hopes that the corps will restore the reef that was damaged, according to Silverstein. Restoration entails relocating damaged colonies to nurseries and then transplanting them back into their original reef when they are healthy.
What Port Everglades can learn from PortMiami
The chances of stopping Port Everglades’ expansion are slim, even though coral is once again severely threatened. According to a U.S. Army Corps environmental impact study, 15 acres of reef running along the entrance channel will be destroyed.
But there are ways this can be done differently to avoid another round of reef devastation.
“I can’t specifically say what happened in Miami … but our plan for mitigation is extensive,” said Ellen Kennedy, assistant division director for communications at Port Everglades.
These mitigation plans include planting more than 103,000 new nursery-raised corals over 18 acres of existing reef areas, and relocating another 11,000 existing coral, according to the U.S. Army Corps.
She also said the Army Corps will reassess the sediment transport model used in PortMiami.
But Silverstein fears the Port Everglades environmental impact study is faulty, and has simply been cut and pasted from one project to the next.
On a recent dive, local advocacy group Project Baseline found a rare pillar coral — which was added to the Endangered Species Act this year — near Barracuda Reef that wasn’t mentioned in the study, a red flag. But it seems like there’s no stopping the expansion at this point. Silverstein and other environmentalists are calling for a more comprehensive survey. Editor’s note: This sentence has been edited to clarify an attribution of comments.
“It’s the third largest barrier reef in the world, and it’s an incredible gem,” said Philippe Cousteau, a renowned explorer, conservationist and TV personality who surveyed the devastation with Miami Waterkeeper recently. “We can’t afford to be reckless and destroy it anymore.”