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Staghorn coral protection area extension could hinder town's beach nourishment efforts

An environmental group has asked the federal government to extend a coral protection zone

Connie Gasque
Connie Gasque, a Palm Beach resident and a volunteer diver for Palm Beach County Reef Rescue, looks at staghorn coral off the Bath & Tennis Club shore in December 2008. Michael Patrick O'Neill/Photographer

along the town's shoreline.

The town opposes the extension, which would complicate future efforts to nourish its eroded beaches.

In November, the National Marine Fisheries Service designated as critical habitat for elkhorn and staghorn coral a swath of ocean floor from the Florida Keys to Boynton Beach Inlet.

The two reef-building species have suffered drastic declines in the last 25 years, and have been shielded since 2006 by the federal Endangered Species Act.

But Palm Beach County Reef Rescue says it has discovered staghorn coral north of the Boynton Inlet, and that the protection zone should be extended 15 miles north to the Palm Beach Inlet.

The fisheries service is reviewing the group's petition and will announce its intention on Jan. 6, said Jennifer Moore, a natural resource specialist with the agency's regional office in St. Petersburg.

But a critical habitat designation demands more than sporadic examples of a species, Moore said. Instead, the area in question must be deemed crucial to the future of the species.

"The whole purpose is to try to assist in a recovery," she said.

Connie Gasque
Staghorn coral can be seen offshore of the Bath & Tennis Club, north of the area now designated as protected habitat. Michael Patrick O'Neill/Photographer

Even though the coral itself is protected, a critical habitat designation would be an additional safeguard. Whenever the town or another applicant applies for state and federal environmental permits to nourish a beach, the fisheries service would evaluate impacts to the coral habitat just as it does for nesting sea turtles and other threatened or endangered species, Moore said.

Ed Tichenor, Reef Rescue's director, said the group isn't opposed to responsible beach nourishments, and that the protection zone wouldn't impede town efforts to rebuild eroded beaches.

The staghorn coral found by Reef Rescue is about a mile offshore in waters 50-60 feet deep, and is distinct from the nearhore hardbottom reef that is a concern for beach nourishments, Tichenor said.

"The critical habitat designation will have no impact on the beach nourishment projects," he said.

The environmental permits required for beach nourishments already protect the coral, he said. Sand dredge sites must be hundreds of feet from the coral reef, and must be monitored for turbidity plumes, he said.

The town blocked an earlier proposal by the federal government to extend the protected zone up to the Martin County line.

In an Aug. 26 letter to Moore, Public Works Director Paul Brazil said the extension to the Palm Beach Inlet isn't warranted because staghorn coral is infrequent north of the Boynton Inlet and doesn't meet Endangered Species Act guidelines for critical habitat.

A critical habitat designation could prevent a beach nourishment if it were found that the project could limit the existence of the coral, said Penny Cutt, regional manager of environmental permitting for Coastal Systems International, a town consultant.

It's unlikely that would happen, she said. But the town opposes the designation because it would lengthen environmental reviews without adding substantial protection for the coral, Cutt said.

"Critical habitat is an area absolutely necessary for the survival of the species," she said. "This is the northern range of the species' tolerance level and is not necessarily where we are finding large stands of the coral."

Tichenor countered that he and other Reef Rescue divers have found evidence the coral is thriving here.

When Reef Rescue started searching for it three years ago, it would rarely find small outcroppings about 6 inches across, he said.

"Now, when we go out, it's easy to find, because they're three to four times as big as they were in 2006," he said.

The staghorn is a branching coral that varies from a few centimeters to more than two meters in length.

Although increasingly rare in the Keys and Caribbean, it has been thriving off the coast of Miami-Dade and Broward counties despite threats that include warming sea temperatures, diseases, hurricanes, boat anchors, and millions of gallons of sewage that pour into the ocean through pipelines.

Tichenor said 97 percent of the coral that was once here is gone.

"The town says a few colonies doesn't represent anything significant," he said. "But if there were only a few bald eagles left, would you say, 'Don't worry about them?'"

by: Wiliam Kelly, Daily News Staff Writer

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Tim Blankenship is the Engineering Department Head at Coastal Systems International, Inc., located in Coral Gables, Florida. He can be reached via e-mail at: