Beneath the waves, a crisis is building

Environment Writer

When marine scientist John Reed began exploring the ocean floor off Cape Canaveral in 1975, he found towers of coral thousands of years old, teeming with grouper and black sea bass.

Returning to the spot 25 years later, the treasures that once amazed Reed were gone. In their place? Fields of rubble.

Today, though parts of the Oculina coral reefs between Daytona Beach and Fort Pierce have been protected for 20 years, much has been obliterated. And the destructive bottom trawling for shrimp and fish that's blamed for the damage still may happen on some areas of the reef.

"There's basically no federal restriction, even in this day and age, prohibiting a bottom trawler from rolling over a healthy reef and it's just ludicrous," said Reed, a senior scientist at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Fort Pierce. "It's like saying, 'Oh, you can go clearcut a redwood forest.' "

In one pass, a heavy trawl may destroy delicate corals hundreds of years old, leaving thousands of tiny animals like shrimp and worms homeless and ruining the chance of successful fishing there anytime soon.

Such trawling may be trashing coral reefs worldwide, just one example of a host of ailments plaguing the world's oceans. Gleaming beauty and salty breezes still lure those who would swim, sail and fish, but the ocean's ancient image as an everlasting resource is an illusion.

"The oceans are not the pristine place people think they are," said Peter Anderson, director of Whitney Lab at Marineland. "It's staggering what we've done. For generations now we thought the oceans were a bottomless pit and they're not."

Both playground and economic backbone for coastal counties like Volusia and Flagler, healthy oceans mean safe swimming, fruitful fishing and tourist cash. The reefs, spawning grounds for countless fish species, are one measure of whether that backbone stays strong.

And with more than half the nation's population living on the coast, the strain shows.

Pressured by fishing, shipping traffic, cruise boats, a warming climate and pollution, the oceans have been overfished and polluted before being fully explored or understood.

Whales, birds and other sea life wash on to beaches, tangled in deadly debris or battered by ships. Scientists find human diseases such as herpes viruses and traces of human drugs and pollutants in their blood.


No longer do fishing boats heave under the weight of a day's catch of prize-worthy beauties. Up to 90 percent of the world's big fish, like marlin and tuna, have vanished. Fishing villages no longer thrive, their fishermen turning to other jobs as they have in Oak Hill.

Jellyfish, algae and seaweed, once held in check by balanced ecosystems, run rampant in what scientists call the "rise of slime."

Instead of flocking to the sea, tourists avoid bacteria-laden waves and toxic algae blooms, as they did in Southwest Florida last year. Such blooms cost the country an estimated $75 million a year.

Even miles from shore, the human footprint that lined the ocean with condominiums and highways leaves its heavy tread. Six-pack wrappers and bottles bob beside turtles and cavorting dolphins.


Scientists and those who live off the sea are optimistic the tide can be turned. But they wonder if there will be enough resolve and money for things like mapping the entire Oculina Bank, which may go as far north as St. Augustine.

They're encouraged by improvements seen since large areas of the bank were closed to fishing.

Fish numbers dropped dramatically when areas of Oculina coral were "annihilated," said Christopher Koenig, a Florida State University professor. But black sea bass, grouper and other fish seem to be returning.


Researchers are pleased state and federal officials now patrol the closed areas.

On a sunny morning in August, the Coast Guard cutter Shrike set out on a routine patrol of the Oculina. The crew spotted more than a dozen shrimp boats anchored just a couple of miles outside one area closed to shrimping and most kinds of fishing.

Boarding one boat, the Guardsmen checked the overnight track. The Oculina was marked on the global positioning system with a "big purple line" and the shrimpers hadn't crossed it. Other boats have and been heavily fined.

The National Marine Fisheries Service requires tracking beacons on big fishing vessels.

But delicate coral that took hundreds of years to grow won't be quickly restored.


Other reefs around the world face similar threats and are being overtaken by seaweed that thrives in water polluted with stormwater runoff and sewage. This year for the first time, two corals were listed as endangered species and the Oculina Bank's ivory tree coral was listed as a species of concern.

Brian Lapointe, a Harbor Branch scientist, found septic tanks seeping into coastal waters of the Florida Keys 25 years ago. At Looe Key, a popular snorkeling spot, he found levels of two fertilizer ingredients, ammonium nitrate and phosphate, rose more than 100 percent in 10 years in the 1990s. Such increases -- from fertilizers, pesticides and bacteria -- occur worldwide, he said, and the ocean can't dilute it all.

Scott Kraus sees the impacts of pollution on sea life in his work as vice president of research with the New England Aquarium. "People don't take the potential problems we're creating for (the ocean) seriously, because we've been dumping for years and thinking it was infinite," Kraus said.


The clamoring of scientists worldwide has drawn attention to the ocean crisis, with state and national ocean commissions calling for sweeping changes.

The fisheries service, for example, expects to create a series of Marine Protected Areas off the Southeast coast in March. The areas, including one between Jacksonville and Ormond Beach, would close key locations to fishing to give fish somewhere to feed and breed unmolested.

Many fishermen question more restrictions. To Paul Nelson, Jr. a lifelong local fisherman, it seems unconstitutional to close the ocean to a family trying to make a living as his has done for generations.

But ocean advocates say state and federal agencies must do more to ensure the ocean maintains its status as playground and economic backbone.

"We're very fortunate to have them in our backyard," Reed said, "but we also need to take the responsibility to protect them for future generations of mankind forever."


The ocean crisis: what's to blame?

The independent Pew Oceans Commission and the federal U.S. Ocean Commission studied the ocean crisis and in 2003 and 2004 blamed:

· Overexploited fisheries

· Lack of U.S. leadership on international ocean and coastal issues

· Dwindling U.S. investment in ocean and coastal research

· Inadequate funding for government oversight at every level

· No coherent ocean policy, fragmented laws, confusing jurisdictions

· A lack of federal support for emerging initiatives

What should be done?

In March, the U.S. Senate asked the group to come up with a top 10 list of actions, delivered to the Senate in June. They included:

· Adopt a national ocean policy.

· Reauthorize and improve Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which sets procedures and limits for U.S. and foreign fishing in U.S. waters.

· Follow the United Nations convention on the Law of the Sea, which governs and regulates activities on, over and under the world's oceans.

· Establish an ocean trust fund for improved management and understanding of ocean and coastal resources; the group estimates up to $5 billion a year is needed.

· Increase funding for ocean and coastal programs, including research.

· Establish the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in law and work with the administration to improve coordination among federal agencies.

· Manage ocean resources by regional ecosystems rather than state by state.

· Begin an improved nationwide system of buoys for ocean observations.

How can you help?

DON'T LITTER: Discard trash and fishing line in containers. About 80 percent of ocean trash comes from land, mostly fast-food wrappers and plastic bags, bottles and cups.

NEVER RELEASE BALLOONS: Thousands of animals die each year from swallowing balloons. Jellyfish-eating creatures -- leatherback turtles, ocean sun fish and others -- get confused by the balloons, eat them and die.

PICK UP A PEN: Write your lawmakers at the state or federal level to ask for stronger protections for the Oculina Bank and better fishing regulations.

CURB YOUR PETS: Bag dog and cat feces and dispose of them in the trash. Don't flush cat litter down the toilet. Sewage treatment doesn't remove parasites that can harm sea otters and dolphins.

DON'T FLUSH MEDICINES OR SOLVENTS: Throw away unused pharmaceuticals, perfumes, industrial chemicals or solvents. Don't dispose of them in the toilet or down the sink. Sewage treatment doesn't remove many chemicals and dissolved drugs that can poison sea life.

MINIMIZE FERTILIZER USE: Don't apply before rainstorms. Don't use a hose to remove spills or residue from sidewalks and driveways. Sweep it up and put it in the trash.

DISCARD CHEMICALS PROPERLY: Dispose of household toxins at hazardous-waste collection centers. Recycle used motor oil and transmission fluid. When possible, use nontoxic substitutes.

COLLECT CAR-WASH RUNOFF: Don't wash cars in streets or driveways. Instead, park on lawns or go to a carwash that collects the runoff.

AVOID OVER-WATERING: Use drip irrigation whenever possible and adjust sprinklers to minimize over-spraying. Plant native plants that need less water.

PLANT A TREE: Trees slow runoff and absorb carbon dioxide and other nutrients that, otherwise, end up in the ocean.

USE ALTERNATIVE TRANSPORTATION: Consider walking, riding a bike or taking mass transit to shop or to work. Tailpipes pollute the ocean as well as the air.

SOURCES: Los Angeles Times; News-Journal researchGlossary

Terms to know to help navigate our oceans:

TRAWLING: dragging a large, baglike net by boat along the bottom of a fishing bank

OVERFISHING: to fish a body of water or geographic region to excess, depleting the stock of fish

ECOSYSTEM: a community of animals, plants and bacteria interrelated together with its physical and chemical environment

CUTTER: a small, armed, engine-powered ship used by the U.S. Coast Guard for patrol duty

AMMONIUM NITRATE: colorless, crystalline salt used in some explosives, as fertilizer, and in rocket fuel; can cause dangerous acidity in water

ENTEROCOCCUS: bacteria normally present in the intestinal tract; is used as an indicator of water quality

FECAL COLIFORM: consisting of feces, normally found in the colon; used as an indicator of disease bacteria in water

HIGH SEAS: waters beyond 200 miles of a nation's shore

DDT: powerful insecticide usually effective on contact; its use is restricted by law because of damaging environmental effects

SOURCES: Webster's New World College Dictionary; News-Journal research

Informant: binstock


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