Why I am Still Opposed to Widening and Deepening Key West Harbor to Accommodate Larger Cruise Ships by DeeVon Quirolo

Points to consider in the discussion of whether to vote for a feasibility study to widen and deepen Key West harbor:

The science has been indisputable for a long long time on the negative impacts of siltation and dredging on or near coral reefs. Corals are living permanent structures on the ocean bottom comprised of colonies of living polyps that need clear, clean nutrient free waters to thrive. Dredging creates fine sediment and silt that covers corals, preventing photosynthesis and resulting in massive mortality, especially for Elkhorn and Staghorn corals–which cannot slough it off as can other corals. Such sedimentation also reduces the ability of all marinelife, including tarpon and other fish that utilize this area for habitat, to survive.

Episodic storm activity may stir up sediment but the wave action of those storms can also remove loose particulate matter from areas of the ocean bottom. While storm activities have historically affected visibility in the harbor and at the reefs, they do not compare in scale to the massive, chronic, intense effects of outright removal of habitat and the smothering of living formations by tons of dredge sediments that would occur immediately in the harbor and at nearby downstream coral reefs if additional widening and deepening of Key West Harbor were to occur.

It is incredulous to me that anyone associated with protecting coral reefs would dispute this elementary fact of coral ecology. In addition, the health of sea grasses and myriad other marinelife that depend upon this habitat would be severely impacted, including endangered sea turtles and dolphins.

The Key West Harbor Reconnaisance Report published November 2010 noted that the harbor is included in the “critical essential habitat” for both Elkhorn and Staghorn corals under the Endangered Species Listing for them. There has not been one case of allowing removal of critical essential habitat from the Jacksonville Corps of Engineers office in the last 15 years.

It states: “Under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973; the threatened coral Acropora cervicornis (staghorn coral) and Acropora palmata (elkhorn coral) could be located adjacent to the channel in the areas proposed for expansion as this area is designated as critical habitat for these species. While it is possible to relocate the actual colonies of coral, the critical habitat would be permanently removed. It is highly likely that the removal of several acres of occupied designated critical habitat (habitat where the species has been shown to be able to flourish under baseline conditions) could be considered an adverse modification of critical habitat under Section 7 of the ESA. This would be Jacksonville District’s first adverse modification of critical habitat determination in the last 15 years. It is also unknown what reasonable and prudent alternatives and measures National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) would include in a biological opinion to avoid the project adversely modifying designated critical habitat, as required under Section 7 of the Act.* It is expected that resource agencies would oppose any channel modifications outside the existing footprint.”

So this whole feasibility study could be a huge waste of money because there are good reasons why a permit would never be issued for the project thereafter. Surely we can find a more sustainable use of $5 million dollars—how about some stormwater treatment for the island of Key West to improve water quality?

The feasibility study is an effort to calculate the possibility of further widening and dredging in a harbor that was deepened just five years ago. Underneath Key West lies a fresh water aquifer. There are upwellings of fresh water in the harbor today. A massive deepening and widening may have severe unintended consequences on the aquifer, that at a minimum could result in salt water intrusion of that fresh water lens.

The last harbor dredging project just a few years ago included a mitigation plan by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to remove corals from the harbor with the purpose of restoring the damage. Despite their best efforts, there have been only a few of those corals planted in an offshore boat grounding site. For the most part, there has been no successful effort to restore the extent of coral colonies that existed in this area prior to the last dredging. It is therefore highly unlikely that another dredging project will succeed in restoring the habitat removed via mitigation this time either. It is just a false hope that the loss of biodiversity will be anything but an ecological disaster for this otherwise already stressed part of Key West’s coral reef ecosystem.

Often these dredge projects result in in-filling thereafter due to storm activity. Key West may be saddled with a harbor that produces chronic sedimentation without regular repeated environmentally destructive maintenance dredging. This will in turn affect the downstream coral reefs with additional chronic smothering contaminated sediment.

The greater question really is: How much more can the surrounding coral reef ecosystem of the Florida Keys handle in terms of human impacts? Isn’t it enough to have a thriving hotel, tourism and real estate industry? Can’t we draw a line in the sand and say “enough is enough”? Already the hoards of cruise ship visitors denigrates the downtown section to the exclusive benefit of a few businesses while high-end resorts and guesthouses hold their breath that this low-end massive impact to our quality of life will not repel their key markets. What about those who still hope that Key West can be a magic island home–don’t they deserve consideration?

Craig and I would encourage every voter in Key West to vote NO on the feasibility study to dredge Key West harbor….. again.

DeeVon Quirolo

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