By Kean Huy Alado
Contractors first deepened PortMiami’s surrounding waters a decade ago. But what they hoped to be minimal damage led to the unforeseen suffering of the Atlantic and Caribbean. Over 80 times of the original expected coral reef damage has been confirmed so far, with more dredging to come. Coral graveyards of white are all what’s left behind, causing the downfall of our local marine ecosystem and its biodiversity.
In 2013, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wished to deepen the body of water surrounding PortMiami to accommodate larger sea vessels through dredging, or by scraping the sediments off the seabed. With Miami serving as an international hub of export and import, the move was an economic one, especially to accommodate ships from the recently expanded Panama Canal. Initially, they planned for 3.3 acres of coral to be destroyed in the process, but after the project had been completed, the damage was much more severe.
In September, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released an analysis of the environment surrounding the port revealing that 278 acres of coral reef have permanently perished. Eight years after the project has finished, no official agency has been held responsible as of yet, but Miami-Dade County may be considered responsible.
While the Corps managed the project, Miami-Dade was their local sponsor. The county signed a 2012 local sponsor agreement that gave them the duty of coral monitoring the area post-dredging.
The dredging caused clouds and mounds of debris that spread mud, sand, and dirt around with the ocean’s underwater currents. The accumulation of blanketed debris over time asphyxiated the nearby coral. NOAA suspects this dredging to have started or flourished a coral-killing disease affecting the marine life of south-eastern Florida down to the Caribbean.
This disease called the stony coral tissue loss disease was first seen in 2014 around Florida. This lethal disease can affect over 20 species of corals and is present in over 17 countries and territories, generating lesions along the coral until irreparable tissue damage occurs, resulting in their death weeks after infection. Although the cause of the disease still has not been identified, evidence points towards a bacterial culprit.
“[Coral reefs] are a very potent coastal storm surge protection ecosystem,” said executive director of Miami Waterkeeper, Rachel Silverstein. “They have been shown to reduce wave energy by an average of 95 percent or more, so they are actively protecting us from storm surge.”
The impacted coral zones house ecosystems of many microorganisms, crustaceans, and fish. This lethal disease leads to the inevitable displacement and invasion of species into other ecosystems, such as a migration south towards the Florida Keys. The disease reached Key West in 2021 due to the flow of water and incoming ships, potentially even aquatic lifeforms that migrated south.
According to officials, controlling the indirect effects of microbial proliferation from dredging is practically impossible.
“Most mechanisms to control microbial growth require physical or chemical methods that would be harmful to the coral and other organisms in the ocean,” said Dr. Ana Lichtenberger a Barry professor of Biology. “It is of great importance to isolate and identify the causative organism to develop effective methods to prevent its further spread.”
The global response to the disease included the universal disinfection of diving gear and boats with solutions such as bleach, to mitigate the spread. Divers require more direct research with affected coral to identify and validate an effective cure.
Freshman marine biology major, Olga-Maria Flores, worries for the Florida Keys with disease plaguing marine life and further reef destruction on the horizon.
“The loss of biodiversity and an economic impact because the Keys rely on tourism and recreational activities,” she said.
PortMiami’s next project is in its planning stage, further expanding the scope of its dredging. Meanwhile, similar operations have since been restricted in Port Everglades following local backlash.
Silverstein condemns the Corps and other involved parties for the oversight. Miami Waterkeeper successfully replanted 10,000 corals to replace the million or more that were killed by the digging in 2018 after filing a lawsuit against the Corps. But it’s too little too late.
She declares that for future projects, there should be, “a hard look at lessons learned and how to prevent this again.”