ABOARD THE BASELINE EXPLORER Conservationists are working off of Port Everglades to document the plight of coral reefs already battered and, they fear, further endangered by a planned seaport dredging project.
Divers on Sunday began taking pictures, video and measurements of a stretch of the Florida Reef Tract around the Port Everglades channel. The goal is to establish a baseline record of the underwater environment in a roughly one square mile area and track it over time.
The effort comes ahead of an expansion and widening project, awaiting funding from Congress, which will allow larger ships to fit into the port. Officials hope the project will be completed by 2022.
Rachel Silverstein, executive director of Miami Waterkeeper, a nonprofit that focuses on South Florida’s coastal environment and water issues, said she is concerned the dredging will damage the reef near the port. Officials said dredging for the recent PortMiami expansion churned up sediment, smothered coral and damaged sealife, causing more damage than was anticipated, the Miami Herald reported.
This new dredging project has the capacity to impact a really wide area of reef due to suspended sediment,” Silverstein said.
Concerns about reef damage have been a sticking point for years. The estimated $374 million Port Everglades expansion project would deepen the main channel by about eight feet and deepen and widen areas to allow cargo ships to pass docked cruise ships. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has said the project is expected to destroy parts of the reef, but that some coral would be moved from the affected area to an artificial reef.
The Florida Reef Tract runs from the Dry Tortugas National Park in the Gulf of Mexico to the St. Lucie Inlet in Martin County. Florida is the only state in the continental United States with extensive coral reef formations near the coast and it is the third largest barrier reef ecosystem in the world, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection says coral reefs in Southeast Florida have been damaged for years by diseases, bleaching, wastewater discharges and sand relocation projects, used to revitalize beaches.
Silverstein said she hopes more awareness of the issue before the project begins will lead to better monitoring of the sediment kicked up by the dredging and ultimately lead to a reduction in the impact of the expansion on the coral reefs.
Silverstein and representatives from Project Baseline, which is organizing the coral documentation, traveled off the Port Everglades coast Monday to view the reefs. Divers toting oxygen tanks dove to check on the coral, while others were given a tour in two-person submersibles.
Todd Kincaid, science and conservation director of Project Baseline said he hopes divers will be able to track the area before, during and after the project to see how the coral reef is impacted by the work. The group organizes volunteers to record conditions in underwater freshwater and salt water environments, to track if areas are improving or need improvement over time. Project Baseline has about 60 projects in 27 countries around the world, Kincaid said.
“Not only are we looking for data, but we’re also looking for every opportunity that we can to help to get people that would otherwise never go under water to connect to what’s in there environment,” he said.
Robert Carmichael, who has been diving in the Fort Lauderdale area since 1978 and works with Project Baseline, piloted one of two submersibles Monday on board the Baseline Explorer vessel.
‘It used to be a very live and vibrant hard coral reef that was growing,” he said. “What we saw today was about 95 percent of the hard coral is dead. And it just looks like old rock that’s been thrown down there.”
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