Coral reef severely damaged off Palm Beach County: State divers assess damage to sponges and coral

Barge sent for renourishment may be to blame

LAKE WORTH INLET, Fla. - State divers are trying to solve an environmental mystery. How did a three mile stretch of coral reef get heavily damaged, and who is to blame?

Van Blakeman dives into the waters near Palm Beach County almost daily. What he saw 45 feet below the surface broke his heart. 

"It looks as if something skipped across the top of the reef and dug into the rock itself cutting everything off in its path," says Blakeman.

Countless coral and barrel sponges were torn apart, leaving an ugly trail along the Flower Garden Reef. The damage stretches for three miles about five miles south of the Lake Worth Inlet.

"Some of the sponges are hundreds of years old and they're cut off right at the base, rolling around on the bottom. Some of the brain coral are flipped over and they could be thousands of years old," says Blakeman. 

Blakeman quickly alerted the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which launched an investigation the next day. According to the DEP, the culprit could be a barge that glided across the reef in early March. The barge was on its way to dredge sand to restore the beaches in Delray.

Great Lakes Dredge and Dock is an Illinois-based company that owns the barge. It says it is unclear who is at fault because the towing portion of the job was contracted out to three different companies.

"A lot of times the only way to impact someone who has damaged our reefs is financially. Not only to repair the reefs but to make a statement that this is unacceptable," says Blakeman.

The DEP sent divers down this week to assess the damage, but it could be months before they identify who is responsible. 

Great Lakes Dredge and Dock is already working to repair the reef, although it is not admitting fault.

The DEP can fine those responsible up to $1,000 per square meter of damage. The group would also be responsible for monitoring the damaged area for 10 years.

If you notice reef damage on a dive you can report it to this hotline: 1 (866) 770-7335.

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