Controversy roils seagrass transplanting

Published April 1, 2003|Updated Aug. 31, 2005

To win approval for Tampa Bay's biggest dredging project in 30 years, Port Manatee promised to move 12 acres of seagrass from the path of destruction.

It was a plan so bold most experts doubted it could succeed. But in December, after three years of work, the state saw enough progress to allow the $35-million dredging project to begin.

Then the port's seagrass expert quit in protest, accusing the port of lying to get the permit.

"They were claiming seagrass that had been there since day one as replanted seagrass," said Roy "Robin" Lewis, a longtime champion of seagrass restoration in Tampa Bay.

Lewis has presented evidence to state officials that he says backs up his assertion, but he said no one is pursuing his claim of fraud because "there are too many reputations and jobs at risk."

The cost to taxpayers to move the seagrass: $4-million. So far, state officials say only 5.66 acres has been a success, which works out to about $750,000 an acre.

Lewis' accusation has set off a round of finger pointing. Some blame Lewis for the way he designed the transplanting. Some blame port officials for using an experimental transplanting machine after Lewis and others warned them it did not work. Some blame the state for approving the project in the first place.

The disagreement has turned nasty. Port officials will not allow Lewis anywhere near port property, citing security concerns. Meanwhile David Crewz, a state biologist who approved the experimental transplanting, was reprimanded for sending Lewis e-mails accusing him of being "an obsessive-compulsive tyrant" and threatening to become his "worst nightmare."

"There's been a lot of emotion associated with this," said Margaret "Penny" Hall, a seagrass expert with the Florida Marine Research Institute who has surveyed the project.

Port officials insist Lewis and the other critics are wrong. "Nobody can look at this project and say it wasn't a success overall and shouldn't be a model for other seaports," said port director David McDonald.

Yet even the port's staunchest scientific defender has expressed doubts about moving the seagrass.

"I still think this project was a bad idea," Crewz wrote to Lewis in 2001. The state allowed it, he wrote, because of "a process run by wishful thinking, money and politics."

Transplanting seagrass is expensive. According to federal biologist Mark Foneseca, who wrote the book on the subject, "the numbers are all consistently in the hundreds of thousands of dollars." It's cheaper to simply avoid disturbing the grass, he said.

Even the best-planned efforts frequently fail _ dug up by stingrays, washed away by currents _ and experts cannot always figure out why. "It's basically a crap shoot," Hall said.

They keep trying, though, because seagrass is vital to the health of estuaries like Tampa Bay. It filters impurities, stabilizes the sandy bottom and provides habitat for fish and food for manatees.

In the 1950s and '60s, dredging created land for development but wiped out much of Tampa Bay's seagrass, curtailing commercial and recreational fishing. Polluted runoff killed even more. By the early 1990s, the bay had lost 80 percent of its seagrass, more than anywhere else in Florida. Efforts to restore seagrass have had mixed success.

Still, Port Manatee officials say they must dig up 90 acres of bay bottom to expand the port. The port loses $3-million a year because it cannot accommodate larger ships, officials say.

So in 1998 they announced plans to blast away limestone and dredge bay bottom. They want to add a 40-foot-deep turning basin to the 400-foot-wide channel connected to the main shipping channel at the mouth of the bay, widen the spot where the channels connect and create two berths for big ships.

That would wipe out about a dozen acres of seagrass and 20 acres of potential habitat. Only the seagrass must be replaced, the state decided, which upset some seagrass biologists.

For guidance, the port hired Lewis, a former Hillsborough Community College professor who has worked on seagrass and wetlands projects around Tampa Bay for three decades. His company was paid $745,000 over four years.

Lewis' plan called for transplanting seagrass north and south of the channel where it was not growing. Within a year, he said, all the transplants would survive and have had 5 percent growth.

Experts, including Crewz, were skeptical. A 105 percent success rate in a year was unheard of. And how could transplanted grass survive where it did not normally grow?

Despite such questions, the state Department of Environmental Protection gave the green light. In 1999 the port expansion, lauded as a way to encourage Latin American trade, was unanimously approved by Gov. Jeb Bush and the Cabinet. Bush said Lewis' plan provided "proper environmental safeguards."

Work began in 2000. Within a year, it was in deep trouble.

Transplanting seagrass is expensive because it's usually done by hand.

So the Manatee County Commission hired Jim Anderson, who said he could do it for half the price. Anderson, a Ruskin sod farmer, invented a mechanical planter, a boat with a paddle wheel that plugs seagrass into place as it revolves. Anderson said he could plant in a few hours what would normally take several days.

Seagrass experts say Anderson's invention is promising but experimental. Anderson has gotten more than $70,000 in state grants to fine-tune his invention. He tried it out in other states, including the Chesapeake Bay off Newport News, Va.

In the 2001 Chesapeake test, a foundation paid Anderson $10,000 to plant seagrass next to an area where the same amount of grass was planted by hand. After six weeks, 62 percent of the hand-planted seagrass survived, but only 17 percent of Anderson's plantings remained.

"Many of the shoots never even got into the bottom," said Bob Orth, a Virginia Institute of Marine Science professor who oversaw the test. "Maybe a machine could be developed that would work, but for now it's not any better than using your fingers."

Anderson did some test plantings for Port Manatee, but they washed away, Lewis said. Yet Manatee commissioners paid Anderson about $1-million to dig up all the seagrass in the way of the dredging.

For the port, the largest project he ever attempted, Anderson used boats with a new design that uses steel jaws to dig up big chunks of seagrass _ 11,000 of them, each 20 square feet _ and move them.

DEP officials approved this untested design for use at Port Manatee, and since then Anderson has used it in other transplanting projects around Tampa Bay. But some biologists objected that this new design was no better than his paddle-wheeler.

"He was scooping up a 4- by 5-foot carpet of grass," said Stephen Bloom, a biologist hired by Lewis to monitor the transplanting. "He'd take a bite out of the bottom, and the grass would roll up. Then he'd go to the site and push it into the sand, and the grass would fall in upside down and wind up sitting on top of the sand. It doesn't take a whole lot of smarts to see that it's going to blow away."

The problem, Anderson said, was not with his machine but with the area the DEP approved for the transplanted grass, just south of the main shipping channel. The current is swift and passing ships churn the water. Anderson compared it to trying to "plant trees in a hurricane."

In June 2001, biologists from the Florida Marine Research Institute, led by Crewz, reported to the DEP that the planter seemed to work, so "we deem Jim Anderson's techniques useful for seagrass mitigation at Port Manatee."

But a month later, Lewis was sounding the alarm. Anderson's machine was dumping seagrass upside down or sideways, he wrote to port officials. That fall Bloom warned them that Anderson's machine had "achieved little beyond being a waste of human and financial resources."

Anderson argued that his transplants needed a fertilizer he had developed -- an experimental formula not approved by DEP. But Bloom wrote that "fertilization would have only made a difference if fertilizer sacks were used to hold down the plants."

Crewz told county commissioners that Anderson's transplants needed more time. So they stuck with Anderson, to Lewis' consternation.

"Our continued monitoring of the transplantings has shown that 99 percent of the installations vanished within several months, and the remainder struggle to this day to maintain a foothold," Lewis wrote the DEP in January.

DEP officials agreed, but issued the dredging permit anyway.

The port must create 12.7 acres of new seagrass but needed only 5.6 acres to get its state dredging permit.

In November, the port prepared a report to the DEP saying seagrass was growing on 8 acres, and asking permission to begin dredging. Lewis said he found only 3{ acres growing properly and refused to sign the report. Then he quit.

DEP officials rejected the port's 8-acre claim, finding only 5.66 acres. Still, it was enough for the permit. Although some questions remained, "it is clear that a substantial acreage of seagrass is present in the mitigation areas," Mike Sole, chief of DEP's bureau of beaches and wetland resources, wrote on Dec. 17.

Most of the grass was north of the shipping channel where a Palmetto company, Environmental Affairs Consultants, moved seagrass for the port with a squared-off shovel with holes drilled in it. Lewis contends that some seagrass already was growing in that area and the port is improperly claiming credit for it.

Anderson's mechanical transplanter was credited with just eight-tenths of an acre, DEP found.

"They definitely had some failed attempts there, which to a lot of us was not surprising," Sole said.

Although the DEP did not launch a full investigation of Lewis' accusation of fraud, it ordered a review of the port's paperwork.

Don Deis of Post Buckley Schuh & Jernigan found so many problems with the port's claims that he concluded it "is faith-based, i.e. the reader just has to have faith" that it's accurate. Still, he did not recommend further investigation or halting the dredging.

Dredging is not expected to begin for a year. If the port does not reach its goal of transplanting 12.7 acres of seagrass, it will not be allowed to use its new facilities, Sole said.

Since there are no more seagrass beds that can be dug up and moved, Sole said, "a lot of it depends on Mother Nature and how things work."

Port officials say they are confident Anderson's transplants will fill in the gaps.

Hall, the FMRI expert, is not so sure.

When she last checked the area "I saw little patches but for the most part it was bare," she said. "But I don't know whose fault that is."

_ Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Ruskin sod farmer Jim Anderson, left, invented a mechanical transplanter, at right, that he says does the job of planting seagrass in less time and at half the expense of hand-planting. But much of the seagrass moved by his mechanical planter, like that above, wound up upside down or sideways so that much of it washed away, according to Port Manatee's former seagrass expert, Roy "Robin" Lewis.

Struggling to take root

Before launching Tampa Bay's biggest dredging project in 30 years, Port Manatee vowed to transplant about a dozen acres of seagrass. It spent $4-million and used an experimental machine for the work instead of more expensive planting by hand. State officials say little of the machine-planted seagrass survived while the hand-transplanted grass appears to be doing well. State officials still approved the dredging.