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Can the Gulf of Mexico’s Largest Coral Reef Survive a Massive New Port?

Environmentalists in Mexico have fought the recent relocation of a coral reef to make way for bigger ships in the Port of Veracruz. They worry about the ecosystem impacts of the port expansion and the precedent it sets for uprooting corals.

Written by Amelia Urry Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
The Veracruz reef, bordering and overlapping the new port, is the largest in the Gulf of Mexico.Manuel Victoria for AIDA

Coral reefs and ports often grow side by side. Where there are near-shore reefs, there are rich fishing grounds, often attracting communities that profit from them. Natural coral breakwaters also provide shelter to boats and towns from destructive storms and waves. The problems come later.

In Veracruz, Mexico, a state of 7 million people, one of the country’s major ports moves more than 22 million tons of cargo a year. Expanding the port to accommodate larger boats – increasing capacity fivefold by 2030 – is a high economic priority for the government, which has called the $1.6 billion (30 billion peso) expansion the nation’s most important port project of the last hundred years.

The problem: The port was physically hemmed in by the reefs fringing the shore, part of a national park established in 1992 to protect the Veracruz reef, the largest coral ecosystem in the Gulf of Mexico. But in 2012 the Mexican government moved the boundary of the national park; it granted the project’s environmental permit a year later. For the part of the reef slated for construction, called Punta Gorda, a workaround was devised: Pick up and move the corals to a new location, allowing the port to expand over the footprint of the formerly protected reef. The coral relocation began last year and was completed in March 2018.

After years of campaigning, longtime environmental opponents of the expansion project, which is scheduled to start operating as early as June, still worry that the cumulative impacts of the construction and port activity could prove fatal for the reefs that remain in the national park – and that the precedent set by the relocation of one of the reefs could make way for other projects in protected areas.

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Port area in 2017 during ongoing construction. (Google Earth)

“Nowadays a lot of mega projects with similar problems are being developed in Mexico,” said Ximena Ramos, an environmental lawyer with the Mexican Center for Environmental Law (CEMDA), which has sued the government over the project. “So we want to demonstrate how things must not be done, and how they should, with the best and complete scientific information.”

Relocating a coral reef from the place where it spent hundred of years growing is as complicated as it sounds. Corals are colonial organisms, small invertebrates that grow collectively, building each generation upon the calcified skeletons of previous ones. Over time, they can form massive underwater structures, even entire islands, each made up of thousands of individual corals fused and layered together like a puzzle. This complex structure is what makes them an excellent habitat for other organisms – worldwide, reefs harbor 25 percent of the oceans’ biodiversity, from invertebrates like sea urchins and sponges to parrotfish and sharks.

Diver at work on the coral relocation. Each colony had to be chiseled free, then transported to the new location and recemented along precast concrete grids. (APIVER)

Moving the coral of a reef would be like moving the buildings of a city but leaving all the trees, parks, businesses, animals and people that make it a functioning system. So to truly relocate a reef, you have to bring along the hundreds of species that call it home. And you have to reassemble all the pieces in conditions very similar to the ones in which the reef first grew – there must be a similar level of sunlight, similar wave conditions, temperature and water – or else the reef is unlikely to survive in its new location.

In Veracruz, scientists, engineers and fishers were involved in moving more than 40,000 coral colonies piece by piece, along with the organisms that live on them, to a new site 24km (15 miles) to the north, according to the port authority. Each colony had to be chiseled free, then transported to the new location and recemented along precast concrete grids. In March, they announced the successful completion of the relocation and declared an 85 percent survival rate of the transplanted corals, the wire service Agencia EFE reported.

But scientists and environmentalists, who have been fighting the project for years, have been skeptical about the justification for the relocation and fear it won’t be effective in the long term. “The pretext of the government to eliminate Vergara Bay from the National Park was to say that the Punta Gorda reef was dead,” said Leonardo Ortiz-Lozano, a marine biologist at the University of Veracruz, where he studies the regional reef system. In fact, he says, Punta Gorda “had more than 40,000 colonies of coral and 500,000 organisms of different species. That is to say, it was far from being dead, and it should not have been excluded from the protected area.”

The relocation project was recently declared a success by the port. (APIVER)

However, Jose Isaac Ramirez Macias, the port’s environmental protection coordinator for the expansion, called the work a success. “It is early to state any conclusion about coral reef’s condition, but there is no evidence [of] damage produced by the expansion project to date,” he said in an email. Ramirez Macias pointed out that the port put in place 91 environmental and ecosystem conservation measures related to the project and noted a “huge monitoring effort” in the marine protected area, overseen both by the port and independent scientists, that will last through the 50-year life of the project. An April 2017 report led by Ramirez Macias described measures such as a real-time alert system that will allow for pauses in dredging in the event of excessive sediment accumulation. As for the relocated corals, Ramirez Macias says survival is still above 80 percent and “recruits,” or new coral colonies, are already visible around the transplanted colonies.

Reef relocation and restoration isn’t a new concept. It’s been done in Florida and Hawaii, often as a way to clear boat launches and harbors or else as a mitigation strategy if, say, a boat grounds on a reef and knocks some corals out of place. However, efforts to date have had mixed success, according to the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology’s Ku‘ulei Rodgers, principal investigator of the Coral Reef Ecology Laboratory. In 2017, Rodgers and a team completed one of the only long-term assessments of one of these relocation efforts, which are usually only monitored for a short time after completion, if at all.

Fish swim around the Veracruz reef. (Manuel Victoria for AIDA)

In this case, Rodgers’ team found that a relocated reef in Hawaii’s Kane‘ohe Bay, which had been moved from a shallow area where it had been obstructing navigation, was doing well after nearly 10 years. Corals had grown since they’d been transplanted, the overall coral cover in this area had not decreased and fish activity was high. But she explained that this is because the scientists who planned the relocation were careful to match the conditions at the new location to those at the original location. Other Hawaiian reef relocation efforts – those that were unlucky or careless enough to misjudge wave action or sedimentation rates – usually ended with about the same amount of coral cover they’d started with before the relocation.

“No matter what the impact is, unless that impact has been taken care of, the corals are not going to survive,” Rodgers said. Increasingly, reef relocation is discussed as an option for future efforts to save coral reefs from climate change, but the same rule applies: “If this temperature increase continues, coral, no matter where they’re relocated, aren’t going to survive.”

This is why Heidi Weiskel, a marine ecologist who works with the United States–based Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide, an organization that partners with international lawyers to support environmental lawsuits in their home countries, worries about the suitability of the Veracruz relocation site. “If reefs could have grown there, and could [have] thrived, wouldn’t they be doing that?” she said. She added that the effects of all of the port’s activities on the remaining reef have not been adequately assessed. According to Ortiz-Lozano, the protected reefs that still border the port are already showing the effects of sand and silt from the construction of a breakwater 5km (3 miles) long – he estimates more than 690,000 square meters (170 acres) have been “completely covered.”

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The breakwater being built to shield the port. (Leonardo Ortiz-Lozano)

Ramos and her colleague at CEMDA, Xavier Martinez, are still fighting the project. They brought a lawsuit against the National Commission for Natural Protected Areas in 2015, alleging that its poor management of the protected area violated the human rights of the citizens of Veracruz who rely on the reef’s ecosystem benefits. While they lost that case, they have brought another lawsuit against the federal Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources, arguing that its decision to grant the port’s permit was made without adequate information on the environmental impacts of the project and the losses of ecosystem services from the natural area.

She knows the port project is too important to the regional government to cancel – and the Punta Gorda reef has already been relocated – but she hopes the lawsuit will force officials to take more responsibility for the rehabilitation and preservation of the reefs than they already are. “We want to win the best conditions for the reefs and the population in Veracruz that benefits from them,” she said.

“You can see the historical legacy of the value those reefs have brought to the city and to the region. Even all the stones in all the buildings are built from coral,” said Weiskel. “The concern is that you hit some threshold of physical reef loss and degradation and you don’t have those benefits anymore.”

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