Prevent additional damage to coral reefs

Miami Herald Editorial Board

Pollution, destructive human activity and ocean warming have taken a toll on coral reefs along Florida’s coast.
Pollution, destructive human activity and ocean warming have taken a toll on coral reefs along Florida’s coast. AP

Sometimes, it seems, the only news about our most fragile ecosystems is bad news. The latest example is the deterioration of South Florida’s coral reef: First, it’s disintegrating at a faster rate than expected because of climate change. Second, dredging by the U.S. Corps of Engineers in the section underlying PortMiami has made matters worse.

Warnings about the increasing damage to the world’s coral reefs have been going on for years. Today, the system is blinking red. The alarm has been sounded because, as one report put it, parts of the South Florida reef have already reached what one scientist called the “tipping point.”

It’s impossible to overestimate the importance of this natural wonder that stretches some 300 nautical miles along Florida’s coast. It is the only barrier reef off the continental United States, home to 100 coral species and more than 400 fish species. This ecosystem not only protects the shore, but also attracts revenue from tourism and the commercial seafood industry — to the tune of $7.6 billion annually and 70,000 jobs, according to the report by University of Miami marine biologists.

Once, it was even larger, extending from the Dry Tortugas north to Palm Beach County. Today, it has been reduced to a fraction of its former size. Some areas, like Fowey Rocks, a popular dive spot in Biscayne National Park off Key Biscayne, are disappearing. The disintegration is part of a larger trend that has placed all of the planet’s coral reefs at risk. The causes vary, from pollution to destructive human activity to the warming of the oceans.

The UM report found that acidification, the process by which the oceans absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, is turning out to be a deadlier threat, mainly due to spells of unusually hot weather — among other causes. Acidification is expected to increase as the climate warms, so the ultimate answer is to prevent the increasing buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by reducing global warming and the continued use of carbon-based fuels.

That’s a long-term project, but as the latest report makes clear, it’s an urgent one requiring attention by governments around the world. The damage to the reef underlying PortMiami is another matter. This is man-made damage caused by the failure of mitigation efforts, and it requires a man-made solution to prevent further harm.

In December, the Corps blamed the damage on “white plague,” a virus that bleaches and kills coral. A new report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration disagreed, however. It blames dredging sediment, which suffocates the coral. It cites the dredging itself and the failure to protect the vulnerable coral.

Some of the coral should have been relocated by the Corps and was not. Monitoring was inadequate. Sediment extended farther than the anticipated area of potential damage.

Clearly, any further dredging should include independent monitoring. This includes the expected upcoming dredging of Port Everglades sought by Fort Lauderdale.

State and federal inspectors need to get serious about monitoring the work and including mandatory language to protect the coral reefs in any agreement with the Corps. Halting any activity deemed potentially harmful until remedial action has been taken should be required.

Much of the damage that has occurred is irreversible. Further damage must be prevented.