Sifting Through Miami’s Sands

Newspaper: Biscayne Times
Title: Sifting Through Miami’s Sands: Here’s what you’re likely to find: some fascinating history and a lot of garbage
Author/Reporter: Jim W. Harper
Date: April 30, 2007

Tourism here is based on a clean environment and in particular on our beaches, yet there is only one ecology group in Miami Beach. To get this organization’s perspective, I spoke with Luiz Rodrigues, executive director of the Environmental Coalition of Miami Beach (ECOMB). Rodrigues was raised in Rio de Janeiro, studied marine science at the University of California, and has been an activist with several organizations, including Reef Relief, Ecology Action, and International Health Programs. He has been executive director of ECOMB since 2001. You can reach him at or 305-534-3825.

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

The water quality today in Biscayne Bay is a lot better than ten to fifteen years ago. There is a lot less illegal use of sewers, so the water is a lot cleaner. You see dolphins, rays, corals. The county has become more environmentally concerned. For the ocean, we also have very good water quality here.

Sometimes there are problems in canals because people throw in trash, shopping carts, TVs, computers — everything you can imagine. One time we removed 35 shopping carts from one area in North Beach. A lot of people use carts to bring things home, and kids throw them in the water.

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

The relationship changed quite a bit back in the beginning of the [20th] century. I believe it was 1928 when there was an artificial cut that was created in the northern part of Miami Beach, where Haulover Cut is today. That process allowed seawater to come up to the northern part of Biscayne Bay, when most of it was pretty much brackish water. That completely changed the ecology of the bay because we had all different canals and streams or small rivers running into Biscayne Bay. A lot of mangroves and other species were more adapted to brackish water. New species were introduced, and there was a new flush process. Miami Beach was never an island. It was a peninsula. In the southern part of Miami Beach was the creation of Government Cut, which created Fisher Island.

What are your organization’s main goals?

When I started looking at the main problems affecting our community, I realized that the litter problem was definitely number one. Then we also had another problem, which was a lack of recycling awareness. Recycling is the law. There’s a resolution, an ordinance that was passed in ’92, requiring all businesses, condo associations, and single-family homes to recycle. Unfortunately the law is not necessarily enforced unless the county receives a formal complaint. So we felt that we needed to educate residents about this ordinance, and how they go about and request recycling. The third one is habitat restoration. As you know, we lost almost all of our mangroves in the City of Miami Beach back in the beginning of the last century. We only have a few spots here and there that are left over.

I understand that there used to be a sizable coral reef just off of South Beach. What happened?

Up until 2002, one could swim from the shoreline to this incredible nearshore reef, right here south of 5th Street. Two minutes, you’re right on the reef. Beautiful reef, full of sea stars, star corals, soft corals, barrel sponges, schools of angelfish, parrotfish. You would swim and it’s all white sand, and suddenly when you get there, you run into this little Garden of Eden. When I first went into it, I thought, “Oh my God, what is this?” I couldn’t believe it. It’s right in my back yard. 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.

How can a reef just disappear like that?

As far as I understand it, the reef was buried due to a renourishment project that took place in July 1999 along South Pointe, just north of the Government Cut jetty. I was told that, since the excess sand could not move south, it settled down the following years and slowly filled in this area with several feet of sand. So it buried the reef. When that happens, 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 Beach nearshore reef. There seems to be little interest as to what exactly killed the reef, so it’s something that needs to be further investigated.

ECOMB wants to work with the city, the county, and the state to restore some of the habitats we’ve lost. Imagine having a healthy nearshore reef in Miami Beach that one could swim to from the beach, with mooring buoys installed to avoid anchor damage and make 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, you immediately attract a large number of fish. 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 and diving area right here. It would be an amazing thing. So that’s one of our big projects.

With global warming, are the beaches going to disappear?

I truly believe we will lose our beaches; there’s no doubt about it. Based on research I’ve read, probably in 100 years we’re not going to have beaches. Miami Beach is going to be underwater. Not only Miami Beach but many places around the planet. I don’t know if we’re able to do anything very drastic today to stop the influence of all the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

How long would it take for us to reverse the process?

It’s a cumulative process. It’s like when we gain weight. We don’t gain weight overnight. And if you’re very overweight, and if you stop eating today, you’re not going to be thin the next month. It’s going to take a while for that fat to burn. It’s the same concept with the carbon in the atmosphere.

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

That’s a hard question, but I think it’s both. I think it’s both because when you visit certain areas used more by residents, and when you visit one area used more by tourists, a lot of times you find the same amount of trash. But sometimes different types of trash. South of 5th Street, in certain areas that tend to be visited more by locals, you see a lot of cigarette butts. You see bottles on the beach, beer bottles, beer cans. You see a lot of flyers, club flyers. It’s a huge problem.

Then you go t Lummus Park, around 9th and 10th streets, and you see a lot of straws. Thousands of straws. You see flyers, you see water bottles, you see cups from restaurants along the beach. They go in, they buy their drinks, and they walk over to the beach and leave their trash behind. 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.

When cigarette butts get washed into the water, fish will eat them, turtles will eat them. You know how harmful cigarettes are for us. Now imagine how harmful that would be for a small organism like a fish when they eat a cigarette butt. When you go snorkeling or diving, you see bottles and cans on the bottom of the ocean right here. Sometimes during a storm, everything gets washed to the shoreline. Hundreds, thousands of beer cans wash up on the shore. We also have the day visitors from the mainland. Sometimes they come over in the late afternoon with a six-pack and they leave it behind.

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, I swim along the rock outcrop on the north side of Government Cut. You’re going to see tons of corals and sponges. You see the amount of marine life that is concentrated in that area because there is a hard substrate. I swam in the middle of a huge school of squid, hundreds of them, little ones. You see rays. I’ve seen dolphins around the area as well, lots of tropical fish. In that vicinity, you 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 with scuba diving. This was created several years ago. It’s a bunch of cement tetrahedrons that were placed there. Twelve sets of them.

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

There are so many things that one can do. For example, basic things at home — being more aware of your use of energy and water, buying products that are nontoxic, nonpolluting, and not tested on animals. You can plan your daily activities better — your commute — so that you can be more wise about transportation. You can volunteer for organizations such as ours. We have clean- up events, and these are great for kids because they grow up with this mentality. Another thing they can do, they can donate money to us! We are growing quite a bit, and we are looking for more people to join. If you have skills in website design, accounting, things like this, we are in great need of these types of services. What we are really looking for at this moment is the donation of an office space for the organization. That’s badly needed.