A law professor & scientist ask for a halt to a dredging project that could harm Puerto Rico coral reefs

Healthy coral / WMNF News
Healthy corals, like this one in Puerto Rico, have color. Bleached corals appear white. By Seán Kinane/WMNF News (2015).

It’s been a difficult year for corals and coral reefs — a massive bleaching event caused by hot water has led to widespread coral death; now coral reefs in Puerto Rico may be threatened by a proposed dredging project.

On WMNF’s Tuesday Cafe, Seán Kinane interviewed Rachel Silverstein, Ph.D., the executive director and Waterkeeper of Miami Waterkeeper and Stetson University College of Law professor Jaclyn Lopez. She is the director of Stetson’s Jacobs Public Interest Law Clinic for Democracy and the Environment.

Silverstein compared the proposed Puerto Rican dredging project to one a decade ago at PortMiami that killed thousands of corals and likely kick-started a deadly wave of coral disease, Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease.

Listen to the full show here:

“There are a couple of impacts that can come from dredging.

“When you’re actually expanding the shipping channel, they are deleting areas of reef and that is easier to quantify and predict so they can actually move some corals out of that area and, and do restoration to make up for those impacts.

“But what is harder to do and what was not predicted is that the dredging released all of this very fine sediment and almost like concrete powder. And that spread out over the reef and buried the habitat and the corals that were there. Corals need exposed rock to attach to as tiny microscopic baby corals called coral larvae. They find the reef exposed rock they attach to it, they settle and then they spend their whole lives there so they can’t get out of the way of sediment or sand that’s, that’s being dumped on them.

And then we had this year and a half or more of every day, sediment being dropped on top of these corals and they were slowly buried over time. But not only the corals and the millions of corals that were likely killed, were buried but also all of that exposed rock that corals need to tell other corals — ‘Hey, this is a reef you can attach here and we can keep growing.’

“And so that reef area is designated critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act because it’s so important to protect and to keep as exposed rock for corals to continue to thrive. So both the corals were killed and their habitat was destroyed by being buried in dredging sediment. That is also very hard to fix, you can’t really get in and remove the dredging sediment easily. You can’t get in and vacuum up an area that large, so it takes a long time for the reef to recover.

“And it does another thing too, which is that all of the nooks and crannies on the reef provide habitat for creatures and critters. And those creatures and critters. Use those little spaces on the reef to hide and to make homes and when it’s totally buried in sediment, it went from being a very thriving reef to being basically a moonscape.

“When I went diving there next to the dredging, there was so much sediment in the water, you could barely see your hand in front of your face, you could feel the vibrations of the dredge ship. And I initially got in the water and thought that I was in the wrong place like this must be a sandbar. But then I noticed that there were little tops of the sea fans and sea whips sticking out from the sand. And those, by definition, have to be exposed to hard rock. And then I started to realize that this was the reef and it had been completely buried and blanketed and sediment and smothered. I swam as far as I could, and I saw no end in sight to the extent of the damage.

“So to your question how far did [the impacts of dredging PortMiami] go? It was supposed to be just a temporary and insignificant impact within 150 meters from the shipping channel. [But] we know that the impacts went out to 1000 meters from the channel, if not more.

“And in Puerto Rico, there are corals in critical habitat within that 1000 meters — about 450 meters away and 700 and so meters away, respectively. So those corals in that critical habitat in Puerto Rico, we know from what happened in Miami are in the direct risk area for being smothered.”

Rachel Silverstein, Ph.D. on WMNF’s Tuesday Cafe

Watch this interview here:

Also on Tuesday Cafe 17 October 2023

There’s a push in Florida to consolidate judicial circuits. But suspended Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren told WMNF’s Tuesday Cafe that it’s “a naked power grab by Tallahassee and the Republican leadership.” Warren was twice elected in Hillsborough but he was suspended by Governor Ron DeSantis.

WMNF’s Tuesday Café

Tuesday Café airs weekly on WMNF beginning at 10:06 a.m. ET.

You can listen live on 88.5 FM in Tampa Bay, on wmnf.org or on the WMNF Community Radio app.

You can watch replays on TBAE Network Channels at 8:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. Tuesdays on Spectrum 636, Frontier 34 and watch.tbae.net. Or on demand.

You can listen anytime on demand on wmnf.org or by subscribing to the Tuesday Café podcast on your favorite podcast platform.

https://open.spotify.com/show/311qfxLFcO8F7ZvnjgZogD – WMNF’s Tuesday Café with Seán Kinane.

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