[Coral-List] Coral killing continues in Florida
walkerb at nova.edu
Sat Sep 12 08:35:00 EDT 2015
Well put Andrew.
Previous dredging operations in the region have likely killed millions of corals (Walker et al 2012). The impacts from Port Miami need to be scrutinized and understood so other USACE projects may be better planned and mitigated for, especially with the present efforts to push Port Everglades through the approval process. I am not sure of the timing, but it seems the disease outbreak occurred very near the time the dredging occurred. Has anyone investigated the possibility that the dredging kicked off this disease event?
If the disease was present beforehand and the reef tract was already stressed by warm temperatures and/or a disease outbreak, extra high sedimentation and turbidity would not be good ingredients to add to the recipe. Was the present or predicted reef condition considered when/before commencing the dredging? It certainly should be.
I don't think arguing over the semantics of the northern section of the Florida Reef Tract is productive. Yes it is different than the reefs further south for natural and unnatural reasons (Walker and Gilliam 2013), but it doesn't make it any less valuable or special. In fact this same argument could be made for many of the reefs in the Keys as well. Although not presently constructional, there are millions of corals and a diverse coral reef community trying to cope with every stressor we can possibly throw at it. There are over 150,000 m² of dense Acropora cervicornis patches (Walker and Klug 2014), the most in the continental US. Although this is a weedy species, it is found in large quantities in local historical reef framework. There are also over 40 Orbicella spp over 2 m in diameter, some close to 5 m. These corals have been constructing framework in the shallow nearshore environment resisting all the water flow changes, development, and any other stressor for hundreds of years. Some of these large corals have lost significant live tissue in the past year. Several large Dendrogyra colonies have completely perished (Gilliam pers com).
The reefs in the Broward-Miami region are in the worst condition I have ever seen (diving regularly since 1998). This year it has been hit especially hard and we are losing thousands, if not millions of hard and soft corals. We need to get a handle on what caused this outbreak and why it was so bad. Was it temperature? Was it dredging? Was it a synergistic effect? Regardless, it will take many years for the reef to recover to its previous degraded state, if it even can given the lack of consistent recruitment. The Port Everglades project is supposed to start in 2017. Should the USACE and local sponsors jump right in to another local dredging project using very similar practices on a heavily impacted system so soon after such bleaching and disease devastation? I don't think so.
There is a lot to learn from the Port Miami mishaps and Port Everglades seems to be sailing through without much regard for the previous mistakes. From beach construction to port dredging, the engineers have consistently underestimated reef impacts for large construction projects in South Florida.
Walker, B., & Klug, K. (2014). Southeast Florida shallow-water coral reef community baseline habitat mapping and characterization of mapped communities (pp. 83). Miami Beach, FL: Florida DEP Coral Reef Conservation Program report.
Walker, B. K., & Gilliam, D. S. (2013). Determining the Extent and Characterizing Coral Reef Habitats of the Northern Latitudes of the Florida Reef Tract (Martin County). PLoS ONE, 8(11), e80439. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0080439
Walker, B. K., Gilliam, D. S., Dodge, R. E., & Walczak, J. (2012). Dredging and shipping impacts on southeast Florida coral reefs. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 12th International Coral Reef Symposium, 19A Human impacts on coral reefs: general session, Cairns, Australia, 9-13 July 2012.
Brian K. Walker, Ph.D.
GIS and Spatial Ecology Lab
Nova Southeastern University
Halmos College of Natural Sciences and Oceanography
8000 N. Ocean Drive, Dania Beach, FL 33004
From: coral-list-bounces at coral.aoml.noaa.gov [mailto:coral-list-bounces at coral.aoml.noaa.gov] On Behalf Of Andrew Baker
Sent: Friday, September 11, 2015 5:41 PM
To: coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
Cc: eugeneshinn at mail.usf.edu
Subject: Re: [Coral-List] Coral killing continues in Florida
I feel I have to write something in response to the points you make on the list regarding the state of corals/reef adjacent to the Port of Miami. I dove at this site intensively as part of a FWC-permitted recovery operation in June 2014 to rescue corals prior to the dredge continuing. I think your email inaccurately represents just how many corals were present in this area, how many corals have died as a result of dredging, and what the impacts of losing these corals might be for the reefs in Miami-Dade county (and adjacent areas) in the future. Finally, you state that dredging plumes are "unavoidable" and "something none of us can stop", a statement I believe also deserves to be challenged.
I have listed the statements I disagree with below, and explained why below each one.
Statement 1: "I know it well and although there were some corals there it is a stretch to consider it a coral reef. That limestone area had been essentially devoid of reef-building corals for millennia. The few corals that were there were only the hardiest, weediest species"
- You are correct that overall coral cover in this area was relatively low compared to reefs further south in the Florida Keys. However, the important point is that there were nevertheless tens of thousands of scleractinian corals living in the affected area, some up to a meter or more in diameter and decades old. As you state in your email, these corals represent "the hardiest, weediest species" (or genotypes). They had survived numerous combined stresses for many years and consequently represented a potential stockpile of robust corals that would have helped ensure that we have the adaptive genetic variation for reefs to be maintained into the future.
Unfortunately, these corals were killed because they were smothered by acute sedimentation from the PortMiami dredging project. This important genetic variation has now been lost from the population as a result of the dredging activities.
We spend a lot of time on this list (and elsewhere) talking about the value of creating networks of MPAs, identifying resilient populations of corals for protection, and how to best manage corals for the future. If we cannot use our science to prevent the most direct of human impacts (like dredging sediment smothering endangered corals in, and adjacent to, a Marine Protected Area - the Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve - right next to a coastal tourism-based economy in a wealthy developed nation), then the situation is clearly more dire than many of us would like to admit...
Statement 2: "Some divers have photographed sediment accumulations on corals near the dredge area but were not aware the sediment was on corals already dead."
- Many photographs have been taken to document sediment accumulation in the area (even on dead corals) because scientists are trying to document the extent of the sediment plume, which extends far further than was planned for by the Army Corps, or anticipated in the environmental permits. That the sediment is now on corals that are already dead proves the point that the sediment plume has extended to reef areas with many (sometimes old) corals on them. There was no good system in place to monitor the amount of sediment in the area, and the impacts of sediments were grossly underestimated in the Army Corps' environmental plan. The failure to properly plan for sediments was so bad that even the sites designated as restoration sites (for the few staghorn corals that were being relocated) ended up being themselves within the sediment plume....
[This is not merely my opinion. In a letter on 14 May 2014 from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to the Army Corps of Engineers (who are responsible for the dredge project) NMFS states: "NMFS unequivocally reiterates that the sedimentation actually experienced at the Port of Miami greatly exceeds the amount that we predicted in our Biological Opinion, both in area affected and environmental consequences, and that reinitiation of consultation was required to consider the unanticipated sedimentation". They
continue: "The partial and total mortality of coral colonies caused by the dredging-induced sedimentation at Miami Harbor is not an insignificant effect, it is take, and it was not predicted on our 2011 Biological Opinion and not included in the incidental take statement" and "The impact zone is significantly larger than the 150 meters that we predicted in our Biological Opinion, ranging from well over 400m and potentially up to 1000 meters or more from the federal channel". Furthermore "the sedimentation is clearly detectable and measureable and has clearly adversely affected ESA listed corals", and "The sedimentation has also resulted in reduced function of the designated critical habitat surrounding the project areas over a significant length of time, and there is no indication that the sedimentation effects will be temporary."]
Statement 3: "The greatest threat was the regional 2014 bleaching event followed by regional white plague disease that ranged from Monroe to Palm Beach County well outside the dredging area (and is still ongoing)."
- Although we did experience bleaching and disease in the fall of 2014 at many sites around south Florida, it would be wrong to assume that the huge loss of coral near PortMiami was due to this. Bleaching preceded the disease, and did not even start until weeks (or in some cases months) after many corals were buried in sediment. By the late summer of 2014 there were numerous, independent reports (as exemplified by the May 2014 NMFS letter
above) pointing to massive losses of corals due to sediment accumulation.
These reports stated that the sediment was causing partial or complete mortality, burial of the skeletons, and loss of critical habitat because the hard bottom substrate was now covered with sediment and dredge mud (the appearance of which is very different from the coarse sediment that occurs naturally in the area). The argument that corals near PortMiami were killed by bleaching and disease is a red herring. Most of the corals in the area were already mainly dead by the time those impacts came along, and this was visibly, and obviously, apparent to any diver who observed it.
Statement 4: "I can appreciate the feeling of the many who have seen the unavoidable plumes that result from any dredging but it is something that none of us can stop"
- Most of the sediment released into the channel is coming from scows that transport the dredge material offshore. These scows leaked a tremendous amount of fine sediment during the dredge operation because they were routinely "dewatered", which means that once the dredge material was loaded onto the scow, water was drained off to lighten the load and minimize the number of round-trips to dump the spoil. You can imagine what the effect of draining the water off a load of recently dredged material looks like. All the fine sediment (together with whatever chemicals might have accumulated for decades in the sediment at the bottom of the Port Miami shipping
channel) were released into the water column where they were then swept onto adjacent reef by prevailing currents. One of the lawsuits to which you refer actually asked the Army Corps to stop dewatering their scows in the channel.
If the Army Corps has done from the start this much of the sediment damage might have been prevented.
Statement 5: "The danger is that strong contestable language now may backfire and create deleterious effects on the credibility of coral scientists in the future.'
- I could not disagree more. The danger is that if we don't speak up now about what was lost, why, and how it could be prevented, similar dredge operations elsewhere will look to Miami as an example of how dredging should be undertaken in an area with endangered corals. They would mistakenly conclude, from emails like yours, that effects were minimal and unavoidable.
One simple way to help avoid a repeat of PortMiami is that, in future, the environmental consultants responsible for assessing whether or not damage has occurred should not be chosen by the Army Corps or its subcontractors (in this case, the dredging company). Such an arrangement sets up a very obvious conflict of interest. I think the credibility of coral scientists is much more likely to be damaged if we sit back and allow ourselves to be persuaded that sediment is not harming these corals, when there are many lines of direct, first-hand, independent sources of information, none of whom have such conflicts of interest, and all of whom are telling us that corals are dying from sediment smothering.
Statement 6: "A year from now the area in question will likely look no different than nearby areas not touched by this dredging."
- Dredging has killed tens of thousands of corals in the vicinity of the Port of Miami. Many of these corals were old/large enough to be reproductively mature, and they were all subject to long-term selection for robustness and stress tolerance. They may not have looked pretty, but they were nevertheless very valuable. This large pool of stress-resistant corals, including a dozen or more reef-building species, might have helped provide the raw material for other corals in the region to survive future stress through interbreeding. Moreover, this area may have been an important stepping-stone connecting the reefs of the Florida Keys with the corals of Broward County to the north. By destroying the critical habitat for new corals to recruit to, the ability of these reefs to bounce back has been reduced/eliminated. Moreover, if widespread bleaching and disease does continue to ravage South Florida's reefs, how do we know that the very corals that were just killed by sediment might not have had a better-than-average chance of surviving bleaching or disease? We may look at the choked moonscape of PortMiami next year and find that other reefs further away also look bad due to bleaching and disease. But perhaps the corals we smothered were the very ones we might have depended on to help these other reefs bounce back...
Just because reefs might not look like they came straight out of a National Geographic documentary doesn't mean they aren't extremely valuable and worthy of protection, especially when they are in the back yard of a city that thrives on clean coasts and healthy marine resources to drive its tourist economy.
Andrew C. Baker, Ph.D.
Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation
Department of Marine Biology and Ecology Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science University of Miami
4600 Rickenbacker Cswy.
Miami, FL 33149, USA
Voice: +1 (305) 421-4642
Fax: +1 (305) 421-4642
Email: abaker at rsmas.miami.edu
Visit the lab on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/cr2lab
From: coral-list-bounces at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
[mailto:coral-list-bounces at coral.aoml.noaa.gov] On Behalf Of Eugene Shinn
Sent: Thursday, September 10, 2015 1:08 PM
To: coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
Subject: [Coral-List] Coral killing continues in Florida
Sarah, Your rant re, "killing hundreds of acres of endangered
corals"---- the Corps of Engineers, "bulldozing crusade," "Port of Miami disaster," and "nightmare" may be a little over stated. That kind of language may create some excitement with some but is not likely to get you anywhere with the agencies involved. Good scientists should not rant that way or misidentify Golith Grouper poop for reproductive fluid as you did on the list last year. Did you apologize to readers for that mistake?
My former office on Fisher Island overlooked the dredging area in question for 15 years. I know it well and although there were some corals there it is a stretch to consider it a coral reef. That limestone area had been essentially devoid of reef-building corals for millennia.
The few corals that were there were only the hardiest, weediest species.
In fact we could not grow corals in the water from government cut that we collected there at high tide for experiments. Admittedly, that was before the Virginia Key sewage outfall was moved further offshore. I am aware that a large amount of money was spent moving corals and on monitoring the effects of the dredging spoil on the few live corals found there today (coral cover off Miami-Dade County is routinely measured at a half percent or less by SECREMP). Some divers have photographed sediment accumulations on corals near the dredge area but were not aware the sediment was on corals already dead. The greatest threat was the regional 2014 bleaching event followed by regional white plague disease that ranged from Monroe to Palm Beach County well outside the dredging area (and is still ongoing). The scientists doing the work of course cannot discuss the results of the required monitoring studies at the present time because of ongoing lawsuits.
I suspect that at sometime in the future many interesting publications and reports will become available for more critical review. I can appreciate the feeling of the many who have seen the unavoidable plumes that result from any dredging but it is something that none of us can stop. The danger is that strong contestable language now may backfire and create deleterious effects on the credibility of coral scientists in the future. A year from now the area in question will likely look no different than nearby areas not touched by this dredging.Gene
No Rocks, No Water, No Ecosystem (EAS)
E. A. Shinn, Courtesy Professor
University of South Florida
College of Marine Science Room 221A
140 Seventh Avenue South
St. Petersburg, FL 33701
<eugeneshinn at mail.usf.edu>
Tel 727 553-1158
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