From Miami to Australia—Dredging and industrial activities killing coral reefs

Co-authored by Erica Cirino

A large cruise ship sails across the Port of Miami. Credit: Nbx909
A large cruise ship sails across the Port of Miami. Credit: Nbx909

In the Port of Miami, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ recent dredging project has buried as much as 81 percent of the area’s reef in silty sediment with up to 95 percent of the reef area surveyed no longer suitable habitat for corals, leaving its corals vulnerable to death, according to new research by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service. And half a world away in Australia, coral that’s bleaching at an unprecedented rate now faces a new threat: a major coal mining project on the Queensland coast.

Florida is home to the U.S.’s only living barrier reef and world’s third-largest coral reef system, and now the Army Corps is about to initiate another major dredging project there—this time, in Port Everglades. Reef scientists and advocates are racing to bring the Port Everglades project to a grinding halt before more damage is done to the state’s corals.

“A lot of things went wrong with the Port of Miami project,” says Rachel Silverstein, executive director of Miami Waterkeeper. “The Army Corps severely underestimated the effects and reach of sedimentation, and didn’t properly evaluate the coral species its project would affect. They didn’t take precaution to protect Staghorn corals, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.”

About a year into the project, research divers began reporting to Silverstein that enormous amounts of sediment had begun accumulating on the reef. So Miami Waterkeeper filed another lawsuit against the Army Corps, accusing the agency of violating Sections 7 and 9 of the Endangered Species Act: Performing/presenting an inadequate environmental assessment of its Port of Miami dredging project and unlawfully harming federally protected Staghorn corals. Eventually, NOAA divers were permitted to enter the dredging site to remove and rescue some of the corals.

“Catalyzed by the litigation, and with mounting evidence that staghorn corals were smothered in sediment, the Corps finally agreed to pay NOAA over $400,000 to rescue the at-risk staghorn corals and relocate them to a University of Miami coral nursery,” says Silverstein. “However, while over 200 colonies were relocated by NOAA, not all corals in the impacted area were rescued due to the placement of the dredge ship nearby the reef, and likely hundreds more colonies remain on the reef that were not rescued.”

As the Army Corps waits on Congress to authorize its Port Everglades projects, expected to commence in 2017, all eyes are on the Florida’s coral reef. Silverstein says there are glaring problems with this new project, and it needs to be reevaluated before the Army Corps is allowed to proceed.

“The Army Corps sent its plans for Port Everglades to Congress without changing its content based on the new information revealed in the National Fisheries Service report,” says Silverstein. “So if it’s approved, we’re basically set for a re-do of the same coral catastrophe that happened in the Port of Miami.”

Sediments—sand, dirt and silt—collect on the bottoms of lakes, rivers, harbors and other bodies of water due to the movement of water over time and during strong storms. Dredging is a process that uses industrial scooping and pumping equipment to clear some of the sediment away, in other water bodies and sometimes in landfills. Dredging deepens shipping and navigation channels so large ships can pass through and is sometimes also used to increase tidal flushing in harbors and bays. But the process of dredging kicks up huge quantities of sediment and disrupts organisms living on the seafloor, upsetting the balance of marine ecosystems.

Port of Miami dredging operation. Credit: Miami Waterkeeper
Port of Miami dredging operation. Credit: Miami Waterkeeper

Miami Waterkeeper is preparing to send a local dive group to go out and document what the reef in Port Everglades looks like before any dredging begins there. Students in an environmental studies class at the University of Miami have highlighted issues in the Army Corps’ Port Everglades environmental impact statement, sending letters of objection to Congress.

Silverstein says she’s grateful for the students’ help, as well as the support of Senator Marco Rubio and other Florida representatives who’ve put out statements asking the Army Corps to reevaluate its Port Everglades project in light of the new findings on its Port of Miami project. She says she’s also thankful for the fishing and diving communities, which have sent out letters to Congress emphasizing the importance of healthy reefs for healthy fish communities.

At the same time American scientists and ocean advocates are fighting to save Florida’s reefs, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia—the world’s largest coral reef system—faces its biggest-ever bleaching event. An astounding 93 percent of coral in the reef is currently experiencing bleaching, a condition that occurs when coral expels the symbiotic algae it needs to survive. Without the algae, coral “bleaches”—turning white—which leaves it more susceptible to disease. If the algae loss and stress continue, bleaching coral eventually dies.

Staghorn coral buried in sediment as a result of Port of Miami dredging operation. Credit: PortMiami
Staghorn coral buried in sediment as a result of Port of Miami dredging operation. Credit: PortMiami

The Great Barrier Reef faces a multitude of stressors, one of the biggest being the coal industry: Just this April, the Australian government approved coal leases for Adani’s Galilee Basin mine project. Altogether, it’s a $21.7 billion project involving the construction of port facilities, and mining operations to pull 60 million metric tons of coal from the Galilee Basin in central Queensland, then deliver it via a new rail line to a terminal just 30 miles from the Great Barrier Reef.

A mine spill, increased boat traffic, air pollution and climate change driven by this coal project would almost certainly result in widespread coral death.

Reefs all over the world need our help now more than ever, explains former Safina Center Fellow Dr. Ellen Prager, a marine scientist and author. She says corals are damaged or killed off by climate change, pollution, overfishing, development, and invasive species. And according to Prager, this has far-reaching consequences.

“Corals and reefs are not only important to the ocean ecosystem, providing habitat, nutrients, and food for a myriad of species, but they are also critical to human society, providing millions of jobs in recreation and tourism, associated revenue, fisheries, and protection from incoming waves and storms,” says Prager. “We need to do our utmost to protect the corals we have left and to work to reduce the stresses causing reef decline locally as well as worldwide.”

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.