Is Florida's "Beach Re-nourishment" Killing the Beaches?

SURFERMAG.COM: Terry, recently your magazine, Florida Sportsman, the largest regional fishing mag in the country, devoted a whole three-part series to the issue of "beach re-nourishment." Why did your staff consider this so important?

TERRY GIBSON: Keep in mind that most of our staff and contributors do some combination of fishing, surfing and diving. Most of our field editors and everyone on the staff has watched, disgusted, as these massive dredge-and-fill projects do serious and sometimes irreparable harm to our beaches, surf breaks and reefs. And we get letters to the editor about it all the time from around the state. But we weren't sure how to handle something as complicated as Florida beach management issues in one story. Then came the 2004 hurricanes. The buzzards from the American and Florida Shore and Beach Preservation Associations [ASBPA/FSBPA] flew to Washington, D.C., and lobbied Congress for almost $200 million and bragged about their plans to "re-nourish beaches that aren't even eroded yet." Keep in mind that those organizations are composed of vested interests — they're lobbyists, dredgers, consultants and agency personnel that stand to benefit tremendously by perpetual beach-building. In the ensuing panic, the [Army] Corps [of Engineers] and Florida Department of Environmental Protection [DEP] and other agencies authorized all kinds of emergency permits, and brought the dredges in before anyone but a handful of scientists could say, "Hold on, the system can't take all this dredging and filling at once." When we realized that 40 percent of Florida's beaches are deemed "eroded" enough to warrant a "nourishment," we realized that nothing less than the future of Florida's fisheries were at stake. So we decided to devote as much real estate as we could to the issue. We could have filled three issues writing on the subject.

SURFERMAG.COM: What’s so bad about pumping sand back onto a beach after a hurricane?

TERRY GIBSON: First off, erosion isn't a problem for beaches, just for buildings. And in most cases, the sediment they're dredging up is clustered mud, and/or fossil fragments, not sand. Several of Florida's top geologists are bothered that the Corps and the dredge lobby call this stuff "sand," much less these massive dredge-and-fill projects "nourishments." The geologists demonstrated how this stuff doesn't behave anything like native beach sand once placed in the intertidal zone. This stuff has been sitting out there for 5,000 to 7,000 years in a low-energy environment while algae and microorganisms bored into the grains and hollowed them out. Plus, the slurry is full of fine sediments, and the shell fragments that are too light and fragile to stay on the beach or intact in the high-energy surf zone. The waves slam the fragments into each other; they break apart and wash away to scour reefs when present, choke filter-feeding beach invertebrates, and stress fish gills. The stuff is so light that "nourished" beaches erode two to 12 times faster than native beaches. Plus, turbidity levels that exceed Clean Water Act regulations have been recorded months or even years after a project.

SURFERMAG.COM: I lived in West Palm Beach several years ago. I remember when they pumped the stuff onto the beaches at Juno. The sandbars were all screwed up for surfing and the water was all milky from the stuff they pumped onshore.

TERRY GIBSON: That was one of the worst projects in history. Five years later, the water is still milky. It took two hurricanes to fix the sandbars, and the fishing has never recovered. They're about to bury Phipps Reef next, even though the mitigation reef is covered and the Lake Worth Pier is just a couple of miles of beach. Hell, it's happening all over the state.

SURFERMAG.COM: I’m just going to go through some of what I read in your three-part series and get you to elaborate or make points. To begin with, you go a bit into history and discuss how in the 1970s the Army Corps of Engineers began looking at so-called "beach re-nourishment" as an option to seawalls or shoreline armoring.

TERRY GIBSON: It took half a century for geological societies and environmental groups to get the Corps to consider anything but armoring for "shoreline protection." Once the Corps got in the beach-building business, they realized it was a way to fund themselves and their operations perpetually, and so have ignored or understated the environmental impacts associated with these massive dredge-and-fill projects.

SURFERMAG.COM: I found it interesting that you wrote that it had just always been assumed that in areas where the dredge material comes from, that bottom-dwelling animals just soon come back.

TERRY GIBSON: But there is no real science to say whether or not this was true. Here are agencies and proponents claiming there is no real lasting harm, without a single study — at least any I could find in the course of three years of research — that meets standards of scientific rigor. Essentially, they're strip-mining the continental shelf, and saying there are no long-term impacts. A lot of the organisms they're dredging up, benthic Sargassum, grasses and a variety of mollusks, for example, are the staples for sea turtles.

SURFERMAG.COM: But don't sea turtles and shorebirds benefit from so-called "beach nourishment" because they end up with beaches to live on?

TERRY GIBSON: Berm-building is better for turtles and shorebirds than seawalls, but these fake beaches erode so swiftly they leave steep drop-offs called "escarpments" that are awful tough for turtles to climb. These beaches are so wide the nesting females often can't find the dune line, which triggers the digging instinct. So they make "false crawls," or nest so low the eggs are washed away as the weak sediments erode. The dark color of the sediment creates another serious issue. Nest temperature determines turtle sex, so the dark sediment heats up the nests and a disproportionate number of females are hatched. And those that do hatch have a longer gauntlet to crawl than they would on a native beach. As for shorebirds, they feed on beach invertebrates such as sand fleas, the populations of which are usually decimated for relatively long intervals when applied to time spans relevant to animals. Again, sea life has no problem with narrow, high-energy beaches. The most productive sea turtle nesting beaches in the world, Archie Carr Refuge and Playa Tortuguero, Costa Rica, are narrow, high-energy beaches. Most of the beaches they're dredging and filling are ample enough to support fish, birds, turtles, and surfers.

SURFERMAG.COM: Are there really a lot of living reefs offshore in Florida, or a lot of other habitats? I think most people just sort of assume it’s either dead already or that offshore is just a big underwater sandy wasteland.

TERRY GIBSON: Our coral reefs are hurting, but we still have thriving colonies. A lot of the hard bottom that doesn't look like much, for example the reefs you used to find in Juno Beach, or at Stuart Rocks for example, aren't coralline but still provide essential habitat to 537 marine species, including 320 animals. In fact, NOAA designated nearshore hard bottom as essential fish habitat and habitat areas of particular concern because they're so phenomenally important to post-larval reef fish, including snappers and grunts.

SURFERMAG.COM: What about game fish?

TERRY GIBSON: Well, you can't have a healthy biomass of apex predators unless you have healthy habitat, including abundant food sources. These projects have impacted in various ways fishing for snook, pompano, permit, bonefish, whiting, red drum, croaker, several snappers, tarpon, flounder, really everything you catch in the near-shore environment. What's scary is that no one talks about these projects in terms of cumulative impacts — I mean more than 100 of them have occurred and there are dozens in the works at any time. And no one factors their impacts combined with other stressors, such as red tides or storm water discharges.

SURFERMAG.COM: You wrote that some $200 million in State and Federal dollars would be spent this year alone to dredge and fill beaches in Florida. That would bring the historic total to something like a billion dollars that mostly comes from taxes.

TERRY GIBSON: Pretty close. The dredge lobby claims it's worth it because beaches are such enormous economic engines. In some cases, dredging and filling a beach is the best option. But the only thing that benefits from these big, square, mud beaches are buildings and tourist traps. But not for very long. These beaches rarely survive more than one or two winters. And the dredge lobby doesn't want to talk about how these projects discriminate against the most consistent beach-goers and ocean users, anglers, surfers and divers, even though fishing, surfing and diving each are multi-billion-dollar industries in Florida. Yet they don't count us in their economic surveys. You can fish in a bucket and you'd have about the same chance of catching something as you would fishing along most re-nourished beaches. Eventually you'll get tired of it and quit fishing. You can dive in a murky lake, but you won't keep spending thousands to do it. And you can surf a close-out shorepound, but eventually you'll get sick of dinging yourself and your board. Florida's coastal management system has disenfranchised those who love the coast the most, understand it, and know how to care for it best.

SURFERMAG.COM: Talk a little bit about who and what watermen are up against in getting anti-dredging messages across.

TERRY GIBSON: Well, first off, there's the demand side. Generally it comes from condominium associations and waterfront home/business owners. They scream loud enough to get counties to hire slick lobbyists that spin these things as economic development, or environmental/recreational restorations, while they attack anyone that points out environmental impacts or questions the social/economic equity of the practice. Also, keep in mind that the Corps has a vested interest in perpetual beach-building; it spells endless Congressional budget appropriations for them. Unfortunately, they're the ultimate coastal permitting authority, and they beat up on us Fish and Wildlife or National Marine Fisheries biologists if they start to object. Legislators are either all too willing to spend your tax dollars for the transitory protection of a few buildings, or the lobbyists drown out the voices of independent scientists and the folks that have been wronged by these projects. It takes community involvement on the local level to force decision-makers to come up with locally preferred alternatives, and more industry involvement on the state and national levels would help tremendously. The most important thing is to educate the media about the real nature of this nasty beach business.

SURFERMAG.COM: The article series says that Florida beachfront property owners and the State seem “addicted” to sand pumping.

TERRY GIBSON: Yes, we are addicted to the tax revenues from high-density coastal development. These projects only perpetuate the addiction by encouraging growth in the stupidest, doomed places. And it gives oceanfront property owners a little kick, a false and very short-lived sense of security about living in the danger zone. Florida's coastal management policies have us on a collision course with disaster. If we don't employ more sustainable technologies while we find a fair way to implement managed retreat, the state will have only lifeless beaches and seawalls to offer.

SURFERMAG.COM: You pointed out that the vested interested make Florida's coastal management decisions.

TERRY GIBSON: The lobbyists, dredgers, the sundry contractors and government-employed sacred cows love Florida's coastal management policies. The State isn't looking at long-term solutions, at moving back the coastal construction line, at managed retreat, or even seriously at sand transfer plants and other more sustainable technologies. The dredge lobby, the shore and beach crowd, took the high-level coastal management positions and perpetuate lucrative contracts and secure government jobs for themselves indefinitely. As a result, agencies and individuals within agencies, especially the Florida DEP [Dept. of Environmental Protection], are operating in conflict of interests and at cross-purposes internally.

SURFERMAG.COM: There was a picture in one of your articles of the mucky spoil that was put up on the beaches in St. Lucie [County] from one of these projects.

TERRY GIBSON: I can't overstate the ecological value and sensitivity of that area. We're talking North America's most biologically diverse non-coralline reefs, just across a sliver of barrier island from the Indian River Lagoon, North America's most biologically diverse estuary. Last week we had some little waves and I slipped on that mud, which is now covering the reefs. The commercial pompano fishermen dropped the dime on the County, and DEP did investigate it. We had the University of Miami analyze the stuff in case DEP pulled a fast one. But the DEP analysis shows that the stuff doesn't meet standards. The question is: Will DEP press first-degree misdemeanor charges against St. Lucie engineer Richard Bouchard? He's on FSBPA's [Florida Shore and Beach Preservation Assoc.] board of directors, so we doubt it. It's a real shame. There's probably lots of high-quality real sand that can be mined inland and used on beaches that badly need it. Martin County engineer Kathy Fitzpatrick did a yeoman's job after the storms, with trucked-in sand down at Stuart Rocks and Bathtub Beach. She monitored the sand coming off every single dump truck that came in. More than 40,000 trucks. Something had to be done. The beach was scraped down to the limestone mantle. She showed us that beach replenishment can truly be an environmental restoration. The sand is almost exactly what was on the beach naturally, the surf isn't screwed up, and there wasn't any lasting turbidity from the work. We doubt Bouchard ever went down to see what was going on his beach.

SURFERMAG.COM: What's this about transplanting corals in Fort Lauderdale?

TERRY GIBSON: There were patches of staghorn and other corals that stood in the way of the Corps and "shoreline protection." You can transplant corals easily enough, but apparently the contractors botched the job repeatedly. The corals are dead or dying. Can you imagine in California if someone had an idea to replace the sand at Pleasure Point and said, "Umm, We want to take up all the kelp reef offshore in Santa Cruz so we can pump some more sand onto the beach here at Pleasure Point — which is eroding. We’ll put the reef back down though — just somewhere else, and we promise the kelp won’t die. Oh, and don’t worry about the fact that there won’t be any otters or kelp offshore from Santa Cruz now. They’ll be thriving off, say, Ocean Beach." They’d be laughed out of the Coastal Commission and sent back to Florida.

SURFERMAG.COM: So what do you do from here?

TERRY GIBSON: We don’t have all the answers, nor do we claim to. But legislators need to start by taking an honest look at these so-called re-nourishment projects. We must establish a review process for these projects that is based on sound economics and hard science and fair public involvement, i.e. prior outreach to watermen. How long will this re-nourished sand last? What’s it going to cost in plus losses felt by watermen — divers, surfers and fishermen? Can it be justified in terms of losses to reefs, turtles, and fish? We’ve got to get away from this mindset that a sandy coastline is somehow permanent, and recognize the fact that the phrase "dune line" is a paradox. I submit we need to be willing to live with narrower beaches. We need sand transfer plants like the one at the Palm Beach Inlet, or better yet, the one at the Superbank in Australia, at the major inlets. Those artificial reefs designed to break up wave energy farther offshore seem worth a few more tries. And we need a fair, managed retreat program. Other states, including Maine, North Carolina and California, have them. If we don't hurry up, we'll only have lifeless beaches and seawalls.