Dredging plan threatens Everglades coral reef

A coral reef stands between Port Everglades and the booming export markets of Asia. as the port and the federal government plan to deepen and extend the 45-foot entrance channel to handle the huge cargo ships that call on Hong Kong, Shanghai and other Asian ports.

But the plan has generated opposition among state and federal environmental officials because it could destroy an estimated 26 acres of reef, home to sponges, corals, crabs, fish and sea turtles. And until they objected, they said, the Army Corps of Engineers, which is in charge of the project, had proposed a superficial study that would have understated the reef’s significance.

“Those reef impacts are substantial,” said Jocelyn Karazsia, an ecologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service. “There is no way to offset the losses to the coral reef. Our position is the impacts are unacceptable.”

In an e-mail to a state environmental official, Vladimir Kosmynin, environmental consultant for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, wrote, “The potential harm is enormous.”

After hearing complaints about the quality of the proposed reef study, the Broward County Commission and the Corps of Engineers have agreed to spend $1.9 million on a detailed examination of the reef, which would explore alternatives to destroying so much of it. Port Director Phil Allen said the study could delay the project by two years but was necessary to minimize reef damage.

Port Everglades is the 12th-busiest port in the United States for containerized cargo. As ships arrive from 70 countries, they bring bananas, clothing, beer, vegetables, cement, ceramic tiles and many other items. As they cast off, they carry exports such as fabrics, grocery products, auto parts, lumber and paper. The port directly accounts for more than 13,000 jobs.

Like the ports of Savannah, New York and other cities, Port Everglades plans to deepen its channel because shippers are trying to save money by using a few big ships rather than several smaller ones.

Adding to the pressure to deepen the harbor is the anticipation of more trade with the Far East, which also involves larger ships. While South Florida trades mainly with Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia is gaining fast. China surpassed Honduras last year to become the Port of Miami’s largest trade partner. And it is gaining in Port Everglades, since the port began its first direct service to China in 2003.

In the past, ships from Asia usually unloaded their cargo at ports on the west coast of the United States, from which it would go by truck or rail to the rest of the country. But trade volumes have increased so much that Asian ships are starting to call directly on East Coast ports, said Bob King, an economist with the Corps of Engineers.

After setting out from Hong Kong or other Asian ports, these ships pass through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean Sea, call on ports in Europe, and head across the Atlantic to ports on the U.S. East Coast. Port Everglades needs to be ready to handle those ships or face a diminished role in trade, he said.

“They’re really trying to make sure they position themselves for the Asian trade,” he said. “There’s this huge expanding market for goods.”

In drawing up plans to deepen Port Everglades, the Corps of Engineers used the giant cargo ship Susan Maersk as the standard. Built in 1998, the 1,138-foot ship has a draft of 47 feet, King said. It is among the new generation of ships called post-Panamax because they’re too big for the Panama Canal (which is also considering expanding).

To handle a 47-foot draft ship safely, he said, the channel would have to be dredged several feet deeper than 50 feet.

Steve Ross, project manager for the Corps, said no decisions have been made on the channel depth. He acknowledged the destruction of 26 acres of reef is possible but said the Corps will work to minimize harm.