Feds say ‘nurseries’ could save Government Cut coral

To stop the “rapid” destruction of rare coral caused by the dredging of Government Cut, federal wildlife managers are recommending the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers quickly move colonies to an underwater nursery where they can be nursed back to health.

In an internal Sept. 10 email, fishery officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the rehabbed coral could then be relocated once the $205million project concludes.

The recommendations come as the Corps grapples with increasing criticism over the project launched last summer to widen the channel and make way for bigger ships expected from an expanded Panama Canal. In August, a month after environmentalists threatened to sue over the work, the state Department of Environmental Protection issued a stern warning that dredging had violated the rules of a state permit.

NOAA officials, already monitoring the project because the work involves habitat for federally protected corals, stepped in after the Corps received the state’s letter and sought the agency’s advice, explained David Bernhart, Southeast protected resources administrator for NOAA Fisheries.

“So we’ve been concerned with the project based on what we were hearing and then we got these reports,” he said.

With the more detailed information from the state survey, Bernhart said NOAA recommended more urgent action. But he stressed Wednesday that exact measures are still being hammered out.

“We’re having very frequent conversations with everybody,” he said. “We would like to come to some resolution pretty quickly, but there’s no deadline.”

State divers sent to survey the site in July found the project was churning up too much sediment and having a “profound effect” on the sea floor, a critical habitat for threatened staghorn and elkhorn coral. Sediment had created a moonscape, with some areas buried by six inches of sand drifting from the dredge.

The fringes of many coral colonies had already started dying while others showed clear signs of stress, the state said. And despite visiting during coral summer spawning season, no baby corals were found. Five other corals listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in August might also be affected.

The state also found that traps meant to measure sediment in the water, which can block sunlight and smother coral, were not working.

The state concluded that the Corps, which hired Great Lakes Dredge and Dock to complete the dredging, had violated four measures in the state permit.

In its response to the state, the Corps argued that it had complied with three of the four provisions but would take steps to better monitor work, including sending divers to the site and meeting with state officials twice weekly. But because no measures were ever taken of the bay bottom, determining how much sediment had accumulated might not be possible, the Corps said.

In a statement this week, Corps spokeswoman Susan Jackson said the agency was working with the state “as well as other federal and state environmental partners to assure that this large and complex infrastructure project is conducted with minimal impact to this important ecosystem.”

State officials are still evaluating the Corps’ response to its warning, DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said Wednesday.

In the meantime, a lawsuit threatened by the Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper environmental group and captain Dan Kipnis still looms. The group’s attorney, Jim Porter, said Wednesday they are keeping an eye on talks.

“We want give DEP and [NOAA] and the Corps every chance to get this worked out,” he said. “But if they’re unable to do so, then we’re prepared to go forward.”

The deadline for filing the group’s lawsuit is Sept.30.

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