Q&A with Luiz Rodrigues, Executive Director of ECOMB

Newspaper: Biscayne Times
Title: Q&A with Luiz Rodrigues, Executive Director of ECOMB, Environmental Coalition of Miami Beach
Author/Reporter: Jim W. Harper
Date: January 21, 2007

Sifting Through Miami’s Sands with ECOMB

Tourism here is based on a clean environment, and on our beaches in particular, yet there is only one environmental organization in Miami Beach. To get this organization’s perspective, I spoke with Luiz Rodrigues, the executive director of the Environmental Collation of Miami Beach.

Q: How would you rate the status of the waters around Miami?

Today, the water quality in Biscayne Bay is a lot better than 10 to 15 years ago. There are a lot less illegal sewer connections and other point sources of pollution, so the water is a lot cleaner. You see dolphins, rays, corals, lots of different fish species, etc. I also feel our local government is more environmentally aware and active. As for our ocean waters, we also seem to have very good water quality. But it also depends where you are along the coast. Sometimes we will have some problems in our canals, due to street runoff, which, most of the time, contain toxic chemicals, illegal dumping, trash, such as shopping carts, TVs, computers – everything you can imagine. Once, ECOMB volunteers removed approximately 30 shopping carts from one canal in North Beach. A lot of people use carts to bring things home, and kids throw them in the water.

Q: How has the relationship of Biscayne Bay to Miami Beach changed over the years?

This relationship has changed quite a bit, going back to the beginning of the [20th] century. I believe it was 1928, when an artificial cut was created in the northern part of Miami Beach peninsula, where today is Haulover Cut. That process allowed seawater to come up to the northern part of Biscayne Bay, and thus creating a flushing process, when most of its water was primarily brackish. That completely changed the ecology of the bay, because its northern part, which received a greater input of fresh water by several small streams running into Bay, suddenly became salty. A lot of plant and animal species, which were adapted to the brackish water, either decreased in numbers or died, and the ecological map of the mid to northern part of the Bay changed quite a bit. Different species moved up and established themselves. Miami Beach was never an island. It was a peninsula. The southern tip of Miami Beach, on the other hand, was cut in half with the creation of Government Cut, which then created what is now Fisher Island.

Q: What are your organization’s [ECOMB’s] main goals?

Litter reduction: When I started looking at the main problems affecting our community, I realized that the litter problem was definitely number one. No matter how many beach cleanups we did, it seems that more trash would show up. Our goal is reduce the amount of trash in our beaches, canals, islands, Biscayne Bay through education.

Increase recycling rates: Then, I also realized that the lack of recycling awareness and low recycling rate for condos and businesses was tremendous. Recycling is the law in Miami-Dade County. A Recycling Ordinance was passed in ’92, requiring all businesses, condo associations, and single-family homes to recycle. Unfortunately the law is only enforced if Miami-Dade County receives a formal complaint by a concerned citizen. And I can understand why. There are millions of us living in Dade County. So, ECOMB felt there was an urgent need to educate our residents about this ordinance and what steps one should take in order to implement recycling either in their condo or business. Eco-Logical Teams program: this is a great neighborhood-based environmental awareness program that helps households to come into environmental balance. Habitat restoration: Our fourth goal is the restoration of lost habitats, such as mangroves and nearshore reefs. As you know, we lost almost all of our mangroves in the City of Miami Beach back in the beginning of the [20th] century. There are only a few spots here and there where one can see some mangroves Miami Beach.

Q: I understand that there used to be a sizeable nearshore coral reef just off of South Beach. What happened?

Up until 2002, one could swim from the shoreline off Third Street to this incredible nearshore reef, right here south of Fifth Street. Two minutes and you’re right on the reef. Beautiful reef. Full of sea stars, star corals, soft corals, barrel sponges, schools of angelfish, parrotfish, etc. As you would start swimming from the shore all you would see was white sand, and suddenly you would run into this little Garden of Eden. When I first ran into it I thought: “Oh my God, what is this?” I couldn’t believe it. It’s right in my backyard.  So I kept on swimming, swimming, swimming. Some of the soft corals were six feet tall. So that became my fun thing to do every weekend. And one day, in the beginning of 2002, I couldn’t find the reef. I couldn’t find it anywhere. The reef was gone.

Q: How can a reef just disappear like that?

As far as I understand, the reef was buried by an excessive amount of sand that was washed down into this area due to a beach renourishment project. This project had taken place just north of the reef, at Lummus Park Beach, I believe, in the previous year or so. I am not 100% of this fact. I was told that, as the sand moved south of 5th Street, it hit the jetty of Government Cut and filled in this whole area with 5 feet of sand. So it buried the reef. Most of this reef is still under a few feet of sand. However, you can see here and there some soft corals trying to re-establish themselves. When a coral reef is damaged or destroyed, just like with mangrove, you have to mitigate. When you’re designing a project with potential environmental impacts, such as a beach renourishment , an environmental impact study is required; we must find out what’s out there, and take the appropriate measures, first, to avoid any damage to the natural ecosystem. If this potential damage cannot be avoided in any way, other alternatives may be looked at. If no alternatives are found and the project must be implemented, than you have to mitigate. If any mangroves might be hurt or sea grass beds destroyed, you have to mitigate. That has not been done to date with the South of Fifth nearshore reef. As far as I know, no one has looked into this accident, not much research has been done about it. There seems to be little interest as to finding out what exactly killed the South of Fifth nearshore reef.   
A few people I have talked to and new about the reef, believe that it died due to the beach renourishment project in Lummus Park. So it’s something that needs to be further investigated.

ECOMB wants to work with the City of Miami Beach, Miami-Dade County and the state in order to restore some of the habitats that we’ve lost in this area. Can you imagine having a healthy nearshore reef in Miami Beach that one could swim to from the beach? Mooring buoys would be installed in order to avoid anchor damage and making it easier for boaters, kayakers. Imagine what that would do to our local tourism industry and local environment. As soon as you have a restored reef, whether you use coral rocks, reef balls, or other types of artificial reefs, such as sculptures, for example, you immediately attract a large number of fishes. And you create a substrate for other species to settle down, such as sponges, hard and soft corals, algae, and so on. So you’ll have an incredible snorkeling/diving area right here. It would be an amazing thing. So that’s one of our big projects. The other one is mangrove restoration. We want to bring back some of the mangroves that were lost. We know that we cannot do that anywhere in Miami Beach, because our city has been developed to the max. But there are certain areas that we might be able to replant them and protect the ones that are left.

Q: With global warming, are the beaches going to disappear?

I truly believe that we will lose our present beaches; there’s no doubt about it. If things continue moving the way they have at the moment, based on what I know and have read about global warming and the melting of our ice caps, I truly believe that we’re going in that direction. Probably in 100 years, maybe more or less, we’re not going to have our present beaches. And that also means that a big part of our county would also be underwater. And you know: every coastal zone of our planed is going to be affected. Rio de Janeiro, my birthplace, would also be underwater. I doubt, in fact, even if we’re able to stop adding carbon dioxide into the atmosphere tomorrow, if we could reverse the process fast enough. How long do you think it would take for us to reverse the process? It’s a cumulative process. It’s like when we gain weight. We don’t gain a lot of weight overnight. And if I am overweight and stopped eating today, I am not going to be thin the in next month. It’s going to take awhile for my fat to burn. It’s the same concept with carbon in the atmosphere.

Q: Are the environmental problems here caused more by tourists or residents?

That’s a hard question to say, but I think it’s both. I think it’s both because. I tend to find a lot of trash in areas used both by local residents as by tourists. Especially during a hot weekend afternoon. But sometimes the types of trash are different. In the South of 5th beach area, for example, which tends to be used more by locals, I see a lot of cigarette butts. You see beer bottles, beer cans. You see a lot of club flyers. It’s a huge problem. Then you go to Lummus Park Beach, around 9th, 10th Street, and you see a lot of straws … thousands of straws. You also see flyers, water bottles, and drink cups from nearby bars. They buy their drinks, walk over to the beach and leave their trash behind. The beach concessions, on the other hand, have helped tremendously. The beach area around them is kept quite clean; recently, they even invested in a sand sifter to assist the process.

The thing is this: we need to educate people. We need to educate the visitors and the residents alike about the impact of litter on the environment and our beaches. Besides being unsightly, it’s also detrimental to the environment. When cigarette butts get washed into the water, fish will eat it, turtles will eat it. You know how harmful it is for us, now imagine how harmful that would be for a small organism like a fish when they ingest a cigarette butt. Sometimes kids come over in the late afternoon with a six-pack and leave the bottles behind. Sometimes they try to hide it by burying the bottles. Then, in the morning, the County cleaning crew starts cleaning up the beach. A tractor runs along the shore and turns sand over the seaweed accumulated on the shoreline. Then, you know what happens: all the stuff that they cannot see, gets buried. I’ve seen it several times. Crushed glass and people cutting their feet. If we dig in a little bit deep, I think we’ll find a trash treasure. When you snorkel or dive, you see bottles and cans on the bottom of the ocean right here. And, when a strong storm comes, everything gets washed to the shoreline. Hundreds, thousands of beer cans wash up on the shore.

Q: When you want to connect to nature, are there places that you go here in particular?

Yeah. For example, right here around Miami Beach, when I want to see some corals, the first place I go to, is the area along the rock outcrop on the north side of Government Cut. You’re going to see lots of corals and sponges. You see a great diversity of marine life in that area, because there is a hard substrate. Once I swam next  to a huge school of squids, hundreds of them, little ones, going like this [hands shooting past head], you know. I’ve seen rays and dolphins around the area, as well as lots of tropical fish. There you will see a lot. Also, right between Government Cut and 2nd Street, there are several sets of artificial reefs. You can snorkel to them, but it would be better to SCUBA dive. This site was created several years ago, I believe during 1998, as part of the County’s artificial reef program. The site is composed of several piles of cement tetrahedrons. Twelve sets of them.

Another location that I find quite nice, is the Venetian Causeway. Yesterday, as I walked along the Causeway, I saw lots of tropical fishes swimming along the edges of the rock outcrops, lots of sponges. I even wanted to go snorkeling there. The water was so clear. I also saw some corals, large sponges, and a lot of iguanas. If you want to see some of the mangroves we have left, the only place that you can see them, is up in North Beach, around 75th St., where it runs into the canal. In fact, in that area you can also see manatees occasionally. They come to this area to breed because the water is very calm and protected, and then you can also see the baby manatees.

Q: What can an individual who is concerned about the environment do?

There are so many things that one can do, from some basic things at home, such as being more aware of your use of energy and water. Buying products that are nontoxic, non-polluting, and not tested on animals. One can plan more their daily activities so he or she does not have to drive as much; you can commute, be more transportation-wise. You can support and volunteer for organizations such as ours, Friends of the Everglades, Citizens for a Better South Florida, Nature Conservancy, etc. We carry out clean-up events on monthly basis and these are great for kids; they grow up with this mentality and pass it on. Another way to help the local environment is by become supporting members of local environmental non-profits – they can donate money to “our” cause! We are also growing quite a bit and are looking for more people to join our efforts. If someone has skills in web design, accounting, bookkeeping, grant writing, etc, we could definitely use some help as well. We are in great need for these types of services. And, finally, one of ECOMB’s greatest needs at this moment is of an office space … a donated office space, which, as you know, would be tax-deductible. That’s one of our main challenges.

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