Coral reef suffers major Damage

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A huge swath of stunning corals on one of the most popular and profitable reefs in Palm Beach County has been shaved from the ocean floor - a crime almost impossible to solve and repair.

Capt. Van Blakeman of the Riviera Beach dive boat Narcosis learned of the damage from his dive guides on Oct. 28. Blakeman assumed it was just another reckless boater who dragged an anchor across the reef.

"You need to see this," Blakeman recalled his guides saying.

What Blakeman saw was an area about two football fields long and 80 feet wide of barrel sponges sliced from the ocean floor; precious, slow-growing brain coral turned on its side, and other hard corals smashed.

"This is extensive damage," Blakeman said. "This is a famous reef."

For decades, guests at The Breakers, the legendary hotel in Palm Beach, have enjoyed snorkeling and diving on both in-shore and offshore reefs. Because of its location near the Lake Worth Inlet, it is a popular reef for local dive charters.

"We were extremely disheartened to learn that a top portion of the reef was damaged," said Ann Margo Peart, public relations manager at the hotel. "We are only grateful that this did not affect the reef in its entirety."

Palm Beach County's reefs bring more than $300 million in sales to local businesses, $172 million in income and almost 5,000 jobs, according to a 2001 study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The county's reefs are part of the 220-mile reef tract off Florida's east coast - the most extensive coral reef system in North America and the third-largest in the world. It is also home to staghorn and elkhorn coral, which are threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

The damaged site is about a mile offshore in about 50 feet of water. It is a "major tourist attraction," said Ed Tichenor, director of Palm Beach County Reef Rescue. "Most tourist divers that come, that's one of the prime locations they go to."

Experts are trying to determine the cause.

"We believe the damage is consistent with a tug towing a barge and the cable dragging across the reef," said Gabriella Ferraro, a spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. In rough seas, tugboats operate closer to shore. If the cable between the tug and barge goes slack, it can sink to the bottom and drag on the ocean floor.

Weather has prevented officials from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Fish and Wildlife Commission from diving on the reef to assess the damage. They hope to do so later this week. They also hope that some of the hard corals can be reattached to the sea floor with marine cement.

"There is success with that," said Erin McDevitt, a marine biologist and marine habitat coordinator with the Fish and Wildlife Commission. "A lot of factors play into that, but it can be successful."

Among the factors is money, McDevitt said. If the perpetrator is found, the agencies could fine the boat owner up to $10,000 per day per violation and order restitution to pay for rebuilding the reef, a tedious and time-consuming task.

"We have to find a funding source," McDevitt said.

Trained volunteers with Reef Rescue will help as soon as the group receives permits for its divers to touch the corals. In the meantime, Steve Spring, Reef Rescue's project manager for the incident, will continue working with investigators, providing them with photos and video of the damage.

"It's the worst damage I've ever seen on a local reef from a single incident," Spring said. "I dove it twice and I didn't even see all of it."



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