Staff editorial 10/17: Dredging may degrade environment

With the expansion of the Panama Canal comes great responsibility. No, that’s not exactly how the saying goes, but, in the case of the Port of Miami, it certainly rings true.

With the canal’s expansion, larger ships will be able to pass through, shifting America’s trade with East Asia largely to ports on the Atlantic coast. To accommodate these ships, the Port of Miami will undergo dredging to increase its depth to 52 feet from its current depth of 42 feet.

Authorities say that the project should open up the Port of Miami, the southernmost port in the continental United States, to increased trade. Projections show that more than 30,000 new jobs could be created in South Florida.

However, dredging in the Port of Miami has an extremely iffy history. In 1999, three acres of seagrass that were prime for manatees to inhabit were gouged from a nearby aquatic preserve; in 2005, beds of seagrass and coral reefs were mistakenly covered with silt. None of the above bodes well for the upcoming project.

Warnings from environmentalists in the past have not always panned out. For example, after 2005, the seagrass and reefs showed no damage from the silt, and no dead manatees, dolphins or turtles were recovered.

There is no doubt, though, that dredging will destroy marine life. Dredging involves explosions at the bottom of the port, putting all types of sea life at risk from the shockwaves. The port is bordered by the Biscayne Aquatic Preserve, an extremely fragile ecosystem that even prevents people from entering some sections.

Areas that have previously been dredged are now repopulated as well, and water quality will be affected negatively.

Regulators say that damage will be offset by creating artificial reefs elsewhere, but the dredging could have untold effects on the fishing industry as well as the vibrant marine life in the area. This, coupled with concerns that Miami’s location and infrastructure make it unlikely to receive many ships, is very worrisome.

We may be dredging ourselves into an environmental and financial hole we can’t get out of.