A plan to expand a port near the continental US’s only barrier reef is “lunacy” and risks devastating the ailing coral ecosystem, Philippe Cousteau, grandson of famed ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, warned on Wednesday.
The US army corps of engineers plans to deepen and widen shipping channels to allow more ships to access Port Everglades, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The $374m plan, which has been sent to Congress for approval, would mean vast tracts of seabed will be dug up and deposited out at sea starting next year.
Proponents of the plan contend it will bring jobs, as well as larger ships, to Florida, but environmentalists bitterly oppose the dredging project, given its potential impact upon the only barrier reef off the contiguous US.
Recent dredging of the port of Miami, also undertaken by the US army corps of engineers, layered as much as 14cm (5.5in) of sediment on to the seafloor nearby, clogging parts of the Florida reef. There are fears that a repeat of this dredging will wipe out rare corals on the world’s third largest reef, which stretches from the Atlantic coast the Gulf of Mexico.
“This dredging is lunacy, it’s just common sense to not repeat a failed plan,” Cousteau told the Guardian. The film-maker and conservationist took part in a diving tour off the Fort Lauderdale coast this week.
“There are reefs elsewhere off the US coast, but this is the key one really. The reef is already heavily degraded, and we are very concerned because the dredging for the port of Miami was a disaster by any environmental standards. We can’t afford to make these kinds of mistakes and not learn from them.”
The Caribbean, including Florida, has been stripped of about 80% of its coral since the 1970s through a combination of pollution, marine debris, anchor damage and a decline in the number of fish that tend to the ecosystem. Ocean warming, driven by increasing greenhouse gas emissions, has also put the coral at risk of dying off – a gradual ecosystem collapse that is happening worldwide.
Dredging adds a further level of stress because the sediment it throws up can smother corals, cutting off vital sunlight and making it hard for them to feed. Corals host a riot of marine biodiversity, and provide a vital coastal buffer to storms.
Miami Waterkeeper, a not-for-profit conservation group that invited Cousteau to the area, is currently embroiled in a legal fight over the Miami dredging. It wants to force the US army corps of engineers to replant the estimated 250 acres of lost coral.
“We are worried we are going to have another situation where massive quantities of coral reef is killed off,” said Rachel Silverstein, executive director of the group. “These reefs are like the redwood of California, they belong to all of us and we should protect them.
“We are trying to save the last vestiges of the Florida reef tract. By piling sediment upon them, we could be pushing them to extinction. There is a possibility the reef system could disappear in our lifetimes.”
The US army corps of engineers was approached for comment.