More Dredging Near Florida’s Endangered Corals Could Spell Disaster

Conservation groups are demanding federal officials reevaluate a plan to expand a shipping port near threatened coral reef species.
Schooling Atlantic spadefish over a reef just offshore of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Photo: Mauricio Handler/Getty Images)
Jun 2, 2016· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

A proposed dredging project to expand a port in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, will wreak havoc on threatened coral species, much like the damage caused by a similar expansion at the port of Miami last year, a coalition of environmental and recreational groups claim.

On Tuesday, Miami Waterkeeper, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Florida Wildlife Federation, and Sea Experience—a Fort Lauderdale diving and tour operator—wrote to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is heading up the expansion, asking it to seek a second opinion from federal wildlife officials before proceeding. Otherwise, the groups will sue the Corps for violating the Endangered Species Act.

The groups claim the Corps is relying on a “flawed” biological opinion of the Port Everglades project by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which granted approval of the plan in 2014. But after learning that five coral species, some of which are found in the project area, have since been listed as endangered, the Corps should be required to get an updated judgment from NMFS on whether or not the agency still approves the project.

The dredging, which needs congressional approval, would allow larger ships to enter Port Everglades by deepening and widening the entrance channel and lengthening it by about 2,000 feet. The Corps would blast rock for up to 30 months and deposit some 5.47 million cubic yards of dredged material offshore, including sediment that can smother coral.

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Dredging of Miami’s port in 2015 left 19.2 acres of coral reef with severe or very severe impacts from sediment, according to an April NMFS report. It could take years to remove the sand that buried the area and several years more for the coral to recover, the report said. Another 107.8 acres of coral suffered moderate to significant impacts from dredging, NMFS said.

“It looks like a moonscape,” Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said of the area.

The coral reef along Florida’s eastern shore, the only coastal barrier reef in the continental United States, has declined by more than 80 percent since the 1970s, and dredging projects such as this could exacerbate the issue, conservation groups fear.

Lopez is afraid the Corps didn’t learn from the mistakes it made during the Miami dredging.

“A survey in Miami originally done in 2010 vastly underestimated coral in the channel,” she said. “It looked at 150 square meters [about 1,600 square feet] and found 31 coral colonies.” A second survey in 2013 found 243 colonies in just half the same area, she said.

“There was a big coral bloom in that tract, or else the surveyors missed the other colonies,” Lopez said, adding that either way, far more endangered coral was affected by dredging than was originally anticipated.

Buried staghorn. (Photo: Port Miami)

Lopez said that the sediment plume drifted much farther than the 150 square meters predicted by the Corps.

“We know the plume can reach at least 400 square meters [4,305 square feet] and up to 1,000 square meters [10,763 square feet], according to NMFS,” she said.

Before the Miami dredging, 38 coral colonies nearest the channel were relocated. Seventeen of those colonies were transplanted only about 850 feet away, which resulted in more than 90 percent of corals suffering partial mortality, likely due to sediment, Lopez said.

“They have the power and technology to relocate species further away in Fort Lauderdale, where they’re not going to suffer the same fate,” she said.

The conservation groups don’t oppose the project but want NMFS to withdraw its 2014 biological opinion and start afresh, taking into account the issues at the Miami port and the newly listed endangered coral species that could be affected by the project.

Dead D. strigosa. (Photo: Zuccarini)

“It’s pretty bizarre they learned all this stuff, and now they want to do a nearly identical project 30 miles south but chose to completely ignore what they’ve learned,” Lopez said. “They need to update their plans and surveys to reflect these lessons.”

Critics of the Miami dredging “overstate the extent and degree of the effects of the project,” the Corps said in a statement.

“The Florida Reef Tract is 150 miles long and four miles wide,” it said. “The extent of the affected area in the worst case is about 0.4 square miles, [which] in no way threaten[s] the overall viability of the reef tract.”

An NMFS official declined to comment.