Navy coral dredging plan prompts outcry on Guam

By Audrey Mcavoy

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Jan. 9 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

This photo provided by U.S. Navy, The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson pier side in Apra Harbor, Guam on May 27, 2007. The Navy's plan to dredge dozens of acres of coral to build an aircraft carrier berth on Guam is prompting an outcry among environmentalists and local residents worried the move will hurt a precious natural resources and harm marine life.

U.S. Navy, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

HONOLULU — A Navy plan to dredge dozens of acres of coral to make way for a new aircraft carrier berth on the small U.S. Pacific territory of Guam is triggering an outcry among locals concerned the move will wipe out important marine life and a valuable part of the island's livelihood and culture.

The Navy wants the berth because its aircraft carriers are spending more time in the western Pacific as the U.S. provides a deterrent to North Korea and monitors the rapid growth and modernization of China's military.

But Guam's fishermen are worried the dredging will hurt fish stocks and harm their ability to catch fish to feed their families. Others worry the tourism industry will suffer as the dredging hurts coral visited by scuba divers and submarine tours. Federal agencies have told the Navy they're concerned about the large scale impact the plan would have.

"They're saying 'We're going to destroy 70 acres of an irreplaceable natural resource of yours,'" said Cara Flores-Mays, an active leader of the group We Are Guahan, an organization that is criticizing the coral dredging plan and other aspects of the military's buildup on Guam. "This is a place that sustains life. It helps us to continue our cultural practices, it enables our economy to flourish."

The Navy has narrowed down its potential locations for the berth to two spots right next to each other inside Apra Harbor, the 212-square mile island's only deep water port. The Navy will also need a basin for the carriers — each over 1,000 feet long — to turn around in, which will require some dredging.

The first location, which the Navy prefers, would require 25 acres of coral to be dredged. Silt generated by the dredging would be expected to float onto and thus possibly smother another 46 acres of coral.

Under the second option, the Navy would dredge 24 acres and indirectly harm over 47 acres. More than 70 acres of coral would be affected under either plan.

The Navy has commissioned a study of the coral, which is expected to be finished in September or October, to help it selects a site.

Other government agencies, however, say they're concerned by both options.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Marines Fisheries Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sent the Navy a joint letter last October asking the service to reconsider the possibility of building the berth at a third site that would require less dredging.

"We remain very concerned with the overall scale of the potential impacts and mitigation requirements from the proposed alternatives," said the letter.

Laurie Raymundo, director of the University of Guam's marine laboratory said the major concern among those critical of the plan is that there are some beautiful reefs both where coral would need to be dredged for the turning basin and where silt would expected to flow.

"Dredging is really destructive. Basically what you're doing eliminating the reef," she said. "The fish habitat and all those other things like sea cucumbers and soft corals, algae ... things that are associated with coral reef communities — none of that would be expected to survive."

Sen. Benjamin J. Cruz, vice speaker of Guam's legislature, said he couldn't believe the Navy was planning to rip coral out of the water at a time when the public has become more aware of how important coral is to marine life and the environment.

He noted the U.S. government actively supported the International Year of the Reef in 2008. The project's website notes reefs support 25 percent of the world's marine life, are known as the rainforests of the ocean, and offer a nursery ground and refuge to many organisms from sponges to shrimp and sea turtles.

"It's ecologically unsound and it will destroy our tourism," Cruz said of the Navy's plan. "The coral is all part of the basis of the ecosystem of the ocean."

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