Helping People

On top of the water: Marine activist protects health of Biscayne Bay

Rachel Silverstein takes a sample from coral. Her group sued the Army Corps of Engineers to pay for moving several hundred threatened corals in the path of a dredge.
Rachel Silverstein takes a sample from coral. Her group sued the Army Corps of Engineers to pay for moving several hundred threatened corals in the path of a dredge.

If Rachel Silverstein could be compared to a TV character, Captain Planet would be it.

Silverstein is Miami’s Waterkeeper: protector of coral reefs and sea life, staunch advocate for the peoples’ right to clean water, and empowerer of everyday people to protect Biscayne Bay. She also boasts a track record of holding others accountable.

She’s among the fiercest defenders of Biscayne Bay and its surrounding watershed, a fragile ecosystem that supports the only living reef tract in the continental United States and is the third-largest barrier reef ecosystem in the world.

“It was true then and it’s still true now that Miami really needed a voice for the water and someone to advocate for Biscayne Bay and the surrounding watershed,” Silverstein said. “For me and for a lot of people, water is why we live here.”

Her mission is both simple and complex: Protect peoples’ right to clean water, empower South Floridians to defend it, and hold violators accountable.

“She's very enthusiastic, very positive and retains this youthful exuberance — enthusiasm — about what she can do, and that's really needed in the job that she's in, where it's all too easy for us to think that someone else is looking after our environment or that the government will be taking care of it,” said Andrew Baker, an associate professor in the Department of Marine Biology and Ecology at UM's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. “All too often we find that, actually, we do need citizen voices to make sure that our best interests are upheld.”

Under Silverstein’s direction, her group successfully sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for $400,000 to pay for moving several hundred of the most threatened corals in the path of a dredge.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a federal agency, used that money to hire divers to rescue the remaining corals. Around 70 percent were relocated to UM’s coral nursery, where Silverstein says they’re “thriving.”

Launched in 2011, Miami Waterkeeperis a registered member of the internationally recognized Waterkeeper Alliance. Nearly 200 independent Waterkeeper organizations work for clean water around the world. Its members include student interns, scientists and marine watchdogs.

Silverstein is the only full-time paid employee at Miami Waterkeeper, and she wears many hats: investigator, scientist, educator, legal advocate, and public spokesperson for the bay. A few UM interns, undergraduate and graduate students, assist her with operational duties.

“Clean water is something that we have to fight for as citizens if that’s what we want in our society, in our community,” said Silverstein, who earned a Ph.D. from the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School for Marine and Atmospheric Science in 2012.

Biscayne Bay is home to coral reefs, acres of seagrass, mangrove forests and hundreds of marine species, with over a dozen listed as threatened and endangered. Manatees, sharks, turtles, and dolphins also call Biscayne Bay home.

Annually, the bay contributes $3.8 billion to the economy in recreational activities, creates 57,100 jobs and produces $257 million in tax revenues, according to a Hazen and Sawyer economic impact report.

Pollution, construction, dredging, dumping, pumping, and warming have held Biscayne Bay under siege since the 1960s, and now, says Silverstein, toxic algae blooms have formed — a sign that the bay is at its tipping point.

Silverstein, a past Knauss Sea Grant Fellow and former staff member of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard in Washington, stressed how we’re already experiencing nature’s wrath.

“We’re seeing streets flooding, we’re already having algae blooms in the bay, and we’ve already lost a lot of our fish populations,” she said. “People go to other places to fish instead of fishing in Miami. That’s another big loss to our economy and it’s a symptom of having a degraded ecosystem.”

Silverstein is creating a research and outreach curriculum thanks to a Habitat Focus Area Grant of more than $117,000 that NOAA awarded to Miami Waterkeeper this summer with the Florida Sea Grant — the coastal and marine extension program of the University of Florida. Some upcoming projects include:

▪  The Bay Water Watch program, a citizen science water quality sampling project;

▪  A water school program, to teach elected officials how the water system works in South Florida;

▪  A Junior Waterkeepers program to educate elementary, middle, and high school students about Biscayne Bay. The funding of the proposed programs will span over two years.

She is also talking with Broward County officials to push for stronger environmental regulations in the upcoming Port Everglades expansion, as the deepening and widening of its channels are slated to start in 2017 to accommodate bigger cargo ships.

“We learned a lot through the last project,” she said.

“I think if we stop and really think about it, we would realize how much we value water in our own lives and how much it touches all of us,” Silverstein said. “And it’s something that’s often not appreciated until it’s lost.”

Getting involved

For more information about Miami Waterkeeper, visit: or email