Can the Gulf of Mexico’s Largest Coral Reef Survive a Massive New Port?

ELAW partners at Centro Mexicano de Derecho Ambiental (CEMDA) are challenging the environmental impact assessments for the Veracruz Port expansion because they lack adequate and complete scientific information. ELAW Staff Scientist Dr. Heidi Weiskel has been working closely with CEMDA to challenge this port project, which threatens the largest coral ecosystem in the Gulf of Mexico, the Veracruz Reef System National Park.
“When the reef thrives the local community thrives,” says CEMDA attorney Ximena Ramos. “The reef provides ecosystem services that are critical to Veracruz, such as food, recreation, and protection from hurricanes.”
A section of the coral reef was relocated to make way for the expansion.
“The effects of the port’s activities on the remaining reefs were not adequately assessed before the project was approved by the Mexican government, and I am skeptical about the fate of the relocated corals,” says Dr. Weiskel.
Coral reefs are complex, living creatures and trying to pick up and move reefs is not a sure thing.
“If reefs could have grown there, and could have thrived, wouldn’t they be doing that?” says Dr. Weiskel in a recent report by Amelia Urry in the independent media project “Oceans Deeply.”
Urry’s report provides the background:
In Veracruz, Mexico, a state of 7 million people, one of the country’s major ports moves more than 22 million tons of cargo a year. Expanding the port to accommodate larger boats – increasing capacity fivefold by 2030 – is a high economic priority for the government, which has called the $1.6 billion (30 billion peso) expansion the nation’s most important port project of the last hundred years.
The problem: The port was physically hemmed in by the reefs fringing the shore, part of a national park established in 1992 to protect the Veracruz reef, the largest coral ecosystem in the Gulf of Mexico. But in 2012 the Mexican government moved the boundary of the national park; it granted the project’s environmental permit a year later. For the part of the reef slated for construction, called Punta Gorda, a workaround was devised: Pick up and move the corals to a new location, allowing the port to expand over the footprint of the formerly protected reef. The coral relocation began last year and was completed in March 2018.
After years of campaigning, longtime environmental opponents of the expansion project, which is scheduled to start operating as early as June, still worry that the cumulative impacts of the construction and port activity could prove fatal for the reefs that remain in the national park – and that the precedent set by the relocation of one of the reefs could make way for other projects in protected areas.

CEMDA brought a lawsuit against SEMARNAT (Mexico’s federal environmental agency) arguing that its decision to grant the port’s permit was made without adequate and complete scientific information. CEMDA also argued that the cumulative environmental impacts of the project were not considered because the project was fragmented. The case is pending.
We will keep you informed of our work with CEMDA to protect the Veracruz reef.

Bern Johnson
ELAW Executive Director

For more information about ELAW’s work to protect marine ecosystems, please contact:
Maggie Keenan
ELAW Communications Director

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