Central Florida Breaks Could Be Destroyed By Pending Beach Renourishment Project

By Allison Arteaga

Satellite Beach, FL, has long been a special part of our East Coast surf community. Kelly Slater and the Hobgoods all cut their teeth at nationally recognized local breaks like RC’s, which create well-shaped waves and can hold considerable size thanks to rare nearshore reef systems. Unsurprisingly, a vibrant surf industry has long thrived in the area, including about 16 surf shops and more than 14 shapers. But now, Satellite Beach and Indian Harbour Beach face an imminent threat that could change everything.

The Brevard County Mid-Reach Shore Protection Project, an Army Corps Of Engineers beach renourishment plan, aims to dump 900,000 cubic yards of sand across 7.6 miles of Satellite Beach and IHB shoreline between Patrick Air Force Base in the north and Indialantic in the south. This specific stretch of shoreline was intentionally excluded from the county’s past renourishment efforts because the rare nearshore reef that makes Satellite Beach a top-notch surf spot is also a fragile and diverse ecosystem that was designated by the National Marine Fisheries Service as essential fish habitat.

The Florida Fish And Wildlife Conservation Commission explained that Satellite Beach and IHB have an unusual series of shallow- water coquina rock outcroppings colonized by reef-building tube worms. This sort of reef is extremely rare, and Satellite Beach is the northernmost limit of the tubeworm’s habitat. These reefs provide habitat for a wide variety of aquatic plants and animals, including rare species of fish and endangered green turtles. The area is a nursery for these turtles as well as many species of game fish, and it provides excellent shore fishing for anglers. At low tide, some parts of the reef become exposed, creating an equally unusual intertidal zone where shorebirds and other animals search for food.

But despite the fact that a rare and valuable ecosystem is dependent on Satellite Beach’s reefs — not to mention the area’s surfers and fishermen — Brevard County and the Army Corps Of Engineers have spent over a decade trying to get around federal environmental regulations that made the dredge and fill of this area illegal. And it seems that they are now poised to make their move. The project is up for a permit after a public comment period that ends on April 14th.

Current plans would create a hydraulic dredge and sand stockpile site in Indialantic, from which sand would be trucked to the north. The Army Corps Of Engineers estimates that three acres of reef would be completely buried and destroyed, but an independent external peer review of the project warned that much more reef could be covered throughout the process of construction, natural sand shifts, and the periodic addition of sand that would be required to maintain the new shoreline profile.

Obviously, this would change many of Satellite Beach’s best breaks forever, but it would also have a tragic impact on the reef itself. A master’s thesis study conducted by Nancy June Beckett Sloan at the Florida Institute of Technology showed that worm rock reefs frequently die after just six days of sand cover. And an entire ecosystem is dependent on those reefs.

The project plans to build an artificial reef 1,000 feet offshore to compensate for its questionably optimistic estimate of only three acres of destroyed worm rock, but Keith Mille, an artificial reef expert with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, says he has major doubts that the mitigation will succeed. Mille is concerned that the proposed artificial reef, a series of concrete and rock mats plopped on the bottom, will quickly be buried beneath shifting sands and become wholly useless. In fact, in a letter to the Department of Environmental Protection, an engineering firm tasked with testing the prototype artificial reef noted that it did quickly become “partially buried with sediment, and there was high mortality of various species of encrusting organisms.” This same firm also observed that algae species, an essential food source for turtles and other marine animals, were less diverse and smaller in size on the artificial reef than the natural reef.

“It’s very difficult to mimic this sort of habitat because it’s so dynamic,” Mille explained. “If the structure can even stay in place and the reef can grow, then it might be able to offset some of the loss, but it will never be the same. It’s a measurable amount that we’d be losing.”

Even if the proposed artificial reef were a success, it’s unclear if the ecosystem would be able to recover from the trauma of the renourishment process. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said that, while sand dwelling organisms might be able to recover from a die-off after a year or so, the displaced algae and juvenile fish and turtles would be dependent on the success of the mitigation reef — if they even survived the renourishment process themselves. And the commission expressed concerns that the artificial reef, which is located in deeper water, would expose young turtles and fish to more predators and competition.

So why was a project like this even proposed? Well, the county says it’s essential for erosion prevention. But Nancy June Beckett Sloan’s research at the Florida Institute of Technology explained that worm rock reefs actually act as natural barriers to erosion by trapping sands and reducing wave energy. And this stretch of coastline features some of the widest natural beaches in the county. Confused yet?

Mike Daniel, vice president of Surfrider Foundation Sebastian Inlet Chapter and a longtime opponent of the project, says that the real motivation behind the renourishment is pressure from a large group of condo owners who want even wider, sandier beaches. “They don’t like the rocks,” he said. “So they coordinated to pitch the idea of the reef as just a collection of unnecessary rocks that get in the way.”

Brevard County, the Army Corps Of Engineers, and several large beach renourishment lobbying firms were inclined to agree. In a public comment letter, the Surfrider Foundation Sebastian Inlet Chapter pointed out that a cost-benefit analysis of the project determined recreational value of the beach based on the number of tourists who could fit on the sand. This, of course, skewed the results in favor of dumping more sand on the beach and didn’t take into account the fact that the reef provides excellent surfing and fishing opportunities. Surfers and fishermen feel as if they’ve been intentionally excluded every step of the way. But they are determined to fight back. “We can stop this project,” Daniel said. “This project is the poster child for everything that’s bad about beach renourishment, and there are people who care about this reef and its role for surfing, fishing, and habitat.”

If you’re one of those people, you can make a difference by sending an e-mail with your concerns about the Brevard Mid-Reach Shore Protection Project to Irene.sadowski@usace.army.mil before April 14th, when the public comment period ends. Daniel is hopeful that public backlash could stop the project in its tracks, but even if the permit is granted, the fight won’t end there. He says concerned citizens can also put an end to the project by contacting their state, local, and national representatives and asking them not to fund the project if it is approved, a strategy that has been proven highly effective thanks to tight government budgets.

“It’s worth people’s time,” said Greg Gordon, a volunteer who has helped to organize the surf community’s opposition. “Those surf breaks might disappear for the next 30 years if we don’t do something now.”

For more information on the project, check out these resources:

Army Corps of Engineers Public Notice

Surfrider Foundation Sebastian Inlet Chapter Public Comment Letter

Final Independent External Peer Review

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