Dredging Killed Miami's Coral Reefs, and the Same Could Happen in Broward

A half-mile off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, 35 feet below the ocean's surface, two battery-powered golden-yellow submarines the size of Volkswagen Beetles puttered around Barracuda Reef. In one submarine's cabin — a transparent sphere that looks like a giant fishbowl — sat Rachel Silverstein, a dark-haired PhD who holds the title of Miami waterkeeper. In the other: 36-year-old Philippe Cousteau Jr., grandson of famed underwater filmmaker Jacques Cousteau. The two conservationists each wore walkie-talkie headsets.

That day, March 21, refracted sunlight lit the sea floor in a blue-green brilliance. The submersibles glided past what looked like a limestone rock but was actually a collection of animals: a colony of stony coral. On top of it, some encrusting coral were shaped like mini-volcanos. Soft coral resembled long, skinny fingers that swayed with the current. A school of tiny neon-hued fish swam up and nibbled for food.

Cousteau sighed. "To see the coral as they are here, we just can't afford to lose a single one." A filmmaker like his grandfather, he founded EarthEcho International, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. He has lectured on environmental issues at the United Nations and Harvard.

Reefs are like underwater rainforests, but scarily, they are disappearing four times faster. Corals — fascinating animals that look like rocks but can hunt, eat, poop, and have sex — support other marine life, and their health is indicative of how the entire ecosystem will fare. Since the 1970s, though, corals on the Florida Reef Tract (spanning from the Dry Tortugas to Port St. Lucie; Barracuda Reef is part of it) have declined more than 80 percent owing to a combination of warming seas, ocean acidification, algae, and diseases. Silverstein and Cousteau fear that if the government's plan to widen and deepen Broward County's shipping channel goes forward, hundreds of additional acres will be destroyed — which is what happened in Miami two years ago with a similar project, despite officials' promises of protection.

"This reef is for Florida as the sequoias are for California, the geysers are for Wyoming."

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"We just want to keep history from repeating itself," Silverstein says. The environmentalist's job as executive director of the nonprofit Miami Waterkeeper (which comes with that cool-sounding job title) is to protect South Florida's ocean life. "This is the only coral reef in the continental United States," she says. "This reef is for Florida as the sequoias are for California, the geysers are for Wyoming. It's our jewel, our treasure, and it's disappearing faster than we even know how to study it or even save it."

A 42-foot-deep manmade shipping channel already allows cargo and cruise ships to travel from deep waters into port in Fort Lauderdale's shallower waters as though they are pulling into a driveway. This channel already bisects Florida's reef.  Since the Panama Canal was cut in the early 1900s, ships around the world have become increasingly larger as they compete to carry more and more products to ports for less money. To accommodate supersized cargo ships (a single one can hold 123,00 tons and 15,000 containers), ports have had to widen and deepen their channels.

Fort Lauderdale's Port Everglades is the leading port in Florida. It is the third busiest in the nation for cruise ships and 11th for freighters, with about 24 million tons of cargo coming and going per year. Both PortMiami and Port Everglades have had to make changes to stay competitive. Both projects underwent decade-plus approval processes to deepen and widen their channels. PortMiami was dredged in 2014, and construction is slated to begin at Port Everglades in 2017.

"The ships are having to come in lightly loaded, which is inefficient and will eventually result in loss of business and jobs in South Florida as these ships are forced to go elsewhere," says Steve Cernak, Port Everglades chief executive and director. "This project is not a case of 'build it and they will come' because they are already here."

Officials said deepening the port by eight feet and widening it by 300 feet (from 500 feet wide to 800 feet wide) would bring 4,700 temporary construction jobs and an additional 1,500 permanent jobs to the port because of all the added cargo capacity, and a total economic impact of $30 million per year. Building it is expected to cost $374 million, paid for through port user fees, federal appropriations, and state grants.

But according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), coral reefs are economically important too: They bring South Florida more than $4 billion a year in tourism and recreation dollars. They also provide protection from hurricanes and flooding.

Silverstein and Cousteau say environmentalists wouldn't mind the dredge if it weren't for the coral. Dredging machines whip up large batches of sea floor sediment that falls on the corals and smothers them to death.

For the PortMiami widening project, the Army Corps of Engineers initially took into consideration the area on 150 meters of either side of the channel, figuring that's how far sediment from the dig would travel. The Corps transplanted some coral that was in this range. But midway through dredging, in 2014, divers realized machines were spewing sediment farther than predicted. Divers from NOAA dug up as much of the coral as they could in the two days they were allowed in hopes of transplanting it. But by the time the project was finished last year, 250 acres of animals had been smothered, including endangered staghorn coral.

Silverstein, who earned her PhD at the University of Miami, describes "rings of death" — sediment surrounding corals that had pushed the debris out of their bodies, the particles falling around them like water from a fountain, until the poor critters succumbed. "I feel like [the Army Corps] personally took something that belonged to me, almost like they came into my house and robbed it," she says. "Our community needs to understand that our waters and our reefs belong to all of us and that no [entity], whether it be the federal government or a private company, has a right to take it away."

"Rings of death" surrounded corals that had pushed sediment out of their bodies.

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In Broward, the Army Corps again considered 150 meters on either side of the project area. It proposed relocating 18 acres of existing corals in this area that are in danger of being harmed and installing 103,000 nursery-raised corals on the reef when the dredging is complete. "The natural underwater environment is a priority for Port Everglades," Cernak says. "South Florida is our home too, and we recognize that we have a responsibility to do what we can to protect our ocean."

But Silverstein and Cousteau are skeptical.

Over the past year, Silverstein and her team have sent multiple letters to the Army Corps, arguing that the dredging impact area will exceed the estimated 150-meter area on either side of the channel. She alleges the Army Corps underestimates the amount of coral and seagrass at risk.

Cousteau, who has been diving the reef since 1998, also worries. "The plan was a massive failure in PortMiami, and we just don't want them to cookie-cutter the same plan in Fort Lauderdale... Even a kindergartner would understand the argument to not stick their finger in a light socket again."

They ask that more studies be done. "I think we know a lot better now after the Miami project what worked and what didn't," Silverstein says. "We need to take a hard look at what happened in PortMiami and incorporate those mistakes in Port Everglades. So far, we haven't seen any effort to protect this reef."

Last October, the Miami Waterkeeper filed a lawsuit, with Tropical Audubon Society and Miami-Dade Reef Guard Association as co-plaintiffs, against the Army Corps for the PortMiami project. It accuses the Corps of violating the Endangered Species Act, which prohibits harming listed species. Environmentalists also demand the Corps install new coral to replace those destroyed at PortMiami — a move that could cost as much as $1 million per acre. Silverstein says the parties are in mediation.

Late on March 21, divers with Project Baseline, a Fort Lauderdale-based nonprofit that documents ocean conditions, took the submersible down one last time for the day. They were amazed at what they found: an endangered staghorn coral colony just 1,000 meters (about 3,000 feet) from the dredge site. Now that one colony has been spotted, there could be others closer to the project site. If there are, the Endangered Species Act would apply — and the Army Corps would have to consult with NOAA every step of the project to ensure no critters are harmed (something Silverstein has already asked the Corps to do regardless).

"I think it's highly likely there are staghorn and other Endangered Species Act corals within 150 meters of the dredge," Silverstein says on the dock while looking out at the ocean. She intends to go looking for them.