MIAMI — As Miami prepares to dredge its port to accommodate mammoth freighters, environmentalists are making a last-ditch effort to protect threatened coral reefs and acres of sea grass that they say would be destroyed by the expansion.
The state's Department of Environmental Protection is on the verge of granting a final permit to the Army Corps of Engineers, which will be free to conduct 600 days of blasting to widen and deepen the channel for the port of Miami, across from the southern part of Miami Beach.
"It won't fare well for us, the bay, the coral reefs, the fish stocks and the sea grass," said Laura Reynolds, the executive director of the Tropical Audubon Society.
"You can bring this all back to the economy," Reynolds said. "People come here to fish, boat, sail, snorkel, and dive and go to the beach."
Florida has seen steep declines in coral in the last 25 years, and last year's cold snap devastated the reefs closest to shore. Some of those lost 70 percent to 75 percent of their coral, said Diego Lirman, a University of Miami scientist who was part of a team that conducted a survey of the coral last year and published its findings in August.
Environmentalists also question whether the potential harm to Biscayne Bay, with its pristine waters and sea life, is too high a price for a port expansion that may not bring the economic windfall that is expected.
Shipping consultants say the port of Miami is in fierce competition with other Eastern ports — including Port Everglades, just an hour away in Fort Lauderdale — to receive the superfreighters that will sail through the Panama Canal in 2014 once it has been widened. South Florida, because of its location, is not likely to become a hub compared with cities farther north, like Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C., experts say.
"The prospect of Miami becoming a big hub, this is not going to happen," said Asaf Ashar, a ports and shipping consultant. "Miami is the end of the peninsula. It's difficult to get into it."
But with ports around the country moving forward with dredging plans, cities do not want to be left behind. In Miami, the actual dredging is expected to begin next year.
State environmental officials said there were plans to mitigate the damage to coral, sea grass and the bay, some of which is part of a state preserve. About 7 acres of coral is expected to be directly affected by the blasts, and the Army Corps of Engineers will be required to transplant much of it to a trough between two reefs.
All stony coral larger than about 4 inches will be chiseled out and moved to the trough. All soft coral greater than about 10 inches will also be transplanted. Elkhorn and staghorn coral, which are categorized as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, may be sent to a coral nursery, according to the plan.
The state also temporarily increased the threshold of just how milky the water can get in the area of the dredging — another concern for environmentalists — but officials said the silt and sediment plume would largely be contained, in part, by underwater curtains.
"The damage is the minimum amount necessary to do the project," said Mark Thomasson, the director for the water resource management division at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which issues the permits.