European Cetacean Bycatch banner loading

"Man is but a strand in the complex web of life"

Internal links buttons



Coastal Waters: A Pattern of Distress
The Beach Issue: Florida’s Coastline

By Cynthia Barnett

SounndNet -

Posted 4th June 2003

'Distress Syndrome'
The coastal waters off Florida’s economically vital beaches are declining in most categories. Scientists say a dramatic shift in strategies is needed to keep up with the problems.

Stretching for 156 miles along the east coast of Florida, the Indian River Lagoon is considered the most diverse estuary in the U.S., where 4,315 different plants and animals live in an exchange of salt and freshwater mixed partly by nature and partly by man.

The lagoon is home to 75 rare, threatened or endangered species, including a third of the U.S. manatee population. It is the top nesting area for sea turtles in the Western Hemisphere. It is a $300-million-a-year sport fishery, with catches ranging from snook to spotted sea trout.

But in recent years, the lagoon has racked up other, more disturbing distinctions. To name a few:

In the late 1990s, scientists began to discover new diseases in the lagoon’s bottlenose dolphins, including fungal infections and cancers seldom seen in marine mammals. Today, more than a third of the dolphins that live there are afflicted with skin lesions whose cause is unknown.

Last year, 14 people became severely ill after eating puffer fish caught in the lagoon or the connected Banana River. The culprit turned out to be saxitoxin, a poison never before reported in fish from Florida waters. Produced by microscopic algae, saxitoxin is unrelated to the naturally occurring tetrodotoxin that is responsible for the hundred or so deaths in Japan each year associated with eating the puffer fish delicacy known as fugu.

This year, talk down at the Snook Nook bait shop in Jensen Beach is all about new vine-like algae called Caulerpa brachypus. An exotic species that fishermen fear could take hold in the nutrient-rich lagoon, the algae have suffocated coral reefs and displaced sea grasses in some parts of south Florida.

The lagoon is just the latest hot spot in a state whose more than 1,300 miles of shoreline and intense coastal development make environmental troubles as regular as the tide, but as marine scientists find disturbing new problems washing ashore around Florida, many of the old problems seem to be getting worse.

Florida Trend culled more than a decade’s worth of environmental data from federal and state agencies, private marine-research institutes and universities in key areas including water quality; fish kills and diseases; marine-mammal strandings; coral reef die-off; harmful algal blooms; and human-health complaints related to marine toxins.

The results: Florida’s marine waters appear to be on the decline in most categories, with virtually every part of the coastline affected. There’s no single culprit to blame, but rather a myriad of factors — many, but by no means all, caused by humans.

“This is not simple cause and effect,” says veterinarian Gregory Bossart, director of marine mammal research at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Fort Pierce. “This is a multilayered, multitiered environmental effect — what we’re seeing is an environmental distress syndrome.”

Water quality
Just in time for spring break this year, state water-quality monitors made an unusual discovery: extensive bacteria outbreaks at five south Florida beaches. Routine testing turned up high levels of fecal coliform — an indicator of human or animal waste — off Hollywood and Hallandale beaches and high levels of enterococci, another indicator for fecal bacteria, off Fort Lauderdale, Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Pompano Beach and the town of Gulf Stream in Palm Beach County.

Officials with the Florida Department of Health, which monitors coastal waters throughout the state, are used to finding the indicators in areas such as Monroe County, which is notorious for poor wastewater-management. Most of the county, aside from Key West, still flushes sewage into septic tanks or cesspits. But this spring’s outbreak was different because it covered such a large area. Signs and flags warned swimmers of the risk of gastrointestinal disease, chasing spring breakers to other beaches.

The bacteria hung around less than a week, and officials remain stumped about what caused it. Some speculate sewage dumped offshore by a passing ship was carried in by winds and tides. Others believe heavy rainfall washed an unusually large amount of wastewater and animal feces into the ocean.

With rainfall levels back to normal after a four-year drought, officials expect higher bacterial counts this summer than ever before.

The good news: at least swimmers will be warned. According to the advocacy group Clean Beaches Council, Florida has among the top water-quality monitoring and public-notification programs in the nation.

Marine toxins

Just as swimming in waters with high levels of bacteria can bring on a stomachache, exposure to marine toxins can be harmful to people as well. According to data from the state Department of Health Aquatic Toxins Program, Florida’s poison-control hot line took nearly 3,000 calls reporting various illnesses related to marine toxins between 1998 and 2002.

Marine toxins also can harm manatees and other sea creatures. Between February 27 and April 15 this year, for example, 59 manatees were found dead from exposure to red tide in Lee, Collier, Sarasota and Charlotte counties.

The toxic bloom of a microalga called Karenia brevis, red tide has been recorded along Florida’s shorelines since the 1840s. It can cause respiratory illness in people, along with massive fish kills. As a result, its lingering can bring serious economic damage to coastal businesses; Florida lost an estimated $40 million as a result of the 1995-96 red tide.

While harmful algal blooms occur naturally in the sea, scientists are worried that they’re showing up in new areas — and, moreover, that deadlier species are emerging. To date, 43 marine species of toxic microalgae have been found in Florida waters, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Florida Marine Research Institute in St. Petersburg.

Obvious threats from previously unseen microalgae include some that can bring on neurotoxic shellfish poisoning and puffer fish poisoning; and others believed to cause lesions on fish, tumors in sea turtles and disease in marine mammals.

Meanwhile, new blooms of macroalgae can suffocate coral reefs and cause other problems for marine life. Scientists have various theories about what can make otherwise harmless algae put out a dangerous bloom and they are unsure whether certain species are increasing in frequency.

“Have certain problem algae been here all along, undiscovered, or were they brought here?” asks Jan Landsberg, a research scientist who investigates the harmful blooms and their impacts at the Florida Marine Research Institute. “If they were here all along, have some species suddenly manifested their toxicity? At this point, it’s theory.”

Across Florida, scientists are working on monitoring systems that will some day predict blooms like the National Weather Service predicts hurricanes, as well as medicines to treat asthmatics and others sensitive to the blooms.

“My feeling is that these toxins have been around for millions of years,” says Lora E. Fleming, an associate professor of epidemiology and public health at the University of Miami School of Medicine. “I’m not convinced we’re ever going to prevent their elaboration. The bottom line is, we have to learn how to deal with them.”

Hot Spots

Florida Trend culled more than a decade’s worth of marine-health data from federal and state agencies, universities and private marine-research institutes and found that Florida’s ocean ecosystems seem to be on the decline in most categories. Trend found that virtually no part of the state’s coastline is untouched by the problems, which include bacterial contamination and harmful algal blooms. Still, hot spots emerge in some categories. Here are the major hot spots:

Dying reefs

Florida has three primary areas of coral reefs: On the southeast coast from Monroe County to Palm Beach, the Florida Middle Grounds in the eastern Gulf south of Apalachicola and northwest of Tarpon Springs, and the jewel in the crown, the Florida Keys reef ecosystem. Stretching from south of Miami to the Dry Tortugas, the Keys barrier reef is the third largest in the world — and among the most troubled.

Last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued its first national survey of the health of U.S. coral reefs. The findings for the Keys were grim. From 1996 to 2000, stony coral cover in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary had decreased 36.6%. The report also documented increases in diseased coral and noted that massive coral bleachings — first recorded in Florida in 1983 — were increasing in frequency and duration.

Perhaps the most disturbing story on the Keys reef is the widespread dying off of what was once the most common coral in the Caribbean - elkhorn, known as the giant redwood of the reef. More than 85% of Keys elkhorn has died since 1996; in some areas, as much as 98% has died.

Declining fish populations

When coral reefs disappear, so do fish, scientists say. Last year, a team of federal and state researchers conducted the largest fish survey to date to provide a snapshot of the status of fish across the entire Florida Keys reef.

The findings were disturbing given that the census took place nearly a year after a controversial federal law declared 151 square miles of water in and around Dry Tortugas National Park a marine sanctuary closed to all fishing.

Despite increases in some species, the scientists found that snappers, groupers and grunts were still on the decline. Over the 3,100 square miles of ocean studied, those fish were particularly scarce in sites close to large human population centers. There, both the number and size of fish diminished.

Still, scientists saw positive signs within the relatively small protected areas — only half a percent of the total reef — including a 20% increase in black grouper in those areas.

“Recreational fishing represents 80% of mortality in some of our fish species state-wide,” says Jerald Ault, associate professor of marine biology and fisheries at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. “We’ve got some really telling signs that we have major declines.”

Mammal strandings

Florida made international headlines this spring not only for manatee deaths in southwest Florida, but also for the strandings of 28 pilot whales in the Florida Keys. Long term, marine- mammal strandings and deaths statewide are increasing — signs in stable populations of animals that the health of the ecosystem is worsening.

According to data from the Florida Marine Re-search Institute, manatee mortality has generally increased each year, from the
hundreds in the early 1990’s to the two hundreds in the late 1990’s to the three hundreds in the early 2000 years.
(1996 saw an anomaly — 415 deaths associated with that year’s severe red tide.)

Meanwhile bottlenose dolphin data from the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute in Orlando indicate that strandings — which usually mean death — have increased from double digits in the 1970s and early 1980s to highs of 253 and 243 in 2001 and 2002.

Sand Dollars

Consider just the biomedical breakthroughs that may lie on Florida’s ocean floors — one sea sponge found here contains a compound that has stopped cancer cells from reproducing in early tests — and it becomes clear that the economic impact of the state’s marine resources is incalculable.

The top lure for Florida’s 75 million yearly visitors, and home to 80% of the state’s residents, Florida’s coastline also supports countless other industries, such as shipping and fishing. The Florida Keys reef ecosystem alone is estimated to wash $8 billion a year onto Florida’s shores — enough to pay the tab for the state’s 30-year Everglades restoration project.

Attempts to calculate the statewide economic impact of Florida’s coastline are considered less-than-accurate at best. But by using real estate data, William B. Stronge, an economics professor at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, has come up with a conservative estimate of the impact of the beaches.

His take: The beaches create almost $16 billion in property values, resulting in $8.8 billion in spending, almost 250,000 jobs and $4.7 billion in payrolls. Stronge says the beaches contribute $320 million in local government revenue, $260.1 million in state sales taxes and $428.6 million in personal and corporate federal income taxes. In addition, foreign residents own $3.5 billion of Florida coastal property, and the beaches attract 2 million international tourists who spend about $1.1 billion annually in the state.

The blame game

It’s a mistake to take a sky-is-falling view of the numbers on marine mammal strandings, says Daniel Odell, senior research biologist at Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute. “Yes, humans have degraded the habitat with chemical pollutants, dredging, construction, overfishing, all these things,” says Odell. “But mass strandings have probably been going on as long as there have been whales and dolphins.”

In addition, strandings monitoring has been stepped up in the last decade. That same caveat applies to water quality and harmful algal-bloom data collection — things may look worse only because we’re paying more attention and collecting more data.

But scientists agree that a combination of factors is leading to severe declines in ocean health here and globally. For the most part, they agree that human causes, primarily global warming, habitat destruction, coastal reconfigurations such as the Inter-coastal Waterway, pollution and overfishing all contribute.

In some parts of the state, scientists such as Brian LaPointe at Harbor Branch insist that a primary source — according to his research, nitrogen from human sewage and agricultural pollution — is feeding new exotic algae that suffocate reefs and harm marine creatures.

Recently, a new technology known as stable nitrogen isotopes, which can detect nitrogen derived from sewage on the reefs, has helped to validate what LaPointe has argued for 20 years.

Indeed, breakthroughs in DNA technology in the coming years are expected to accelerate the ability of scientists to pinpoint sources of pollution.

Dramatic shift ahead

One important factor missing for policymakers is a set of good benchmarks to measure the health of the ocean over time. Now, various data sources are maintained in hundreds of universities, research institutions and government agencies. And despite oversight of coastal areas by 23 Florida agencies, 15 federal agencies and more than 45 committees and subcommittees of Congress, there’s no comprehensive report card on marine ecosystems to offer a clear picture of how to manage them.

An EPA-funded National Coastal Assessment begun in 2000 aims to establish a set of baseline data. The five-year project calls for intensive biological data collection in all coastal states at the same time each year. The resulting database will offer the first true assessment of coastal systems, nationally and by state.

“It’s something everyone wishes we would have started 20 years ago,” says
Gil McRae, director of FWC’s Florida Marine Research Institute, which is overseeing Florida’s part of the assessment at 180 stations around the coast.

What policymakers will do with that data remains to be seen, but a dramatic shift in ocean management is likely in the coming decade. It’s been more than 30 years since the last major review of how the U.S. governs its oceans. The 1969 Stratton Commission’s “Our Nation and the Sea” inspired four important pieces of environmental legislation — the Clean Water Act, along with laws governing coastal zone management, marine mammal protection and marine sanctuaries.

Now, two national efforts are under way that will focus attention on the declining health of U.S. oceans from the Keys to Hawaii. This month the independent Pew Oceans Commission is expected to deliver a sweeping report on the state of America’s seas to Congress and the Bush administration.

By the end of the year, meanwhile, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, which is investigating ecological impacts but also wider issues like shipping and trade, will release its findings.

The reports may recommend ocean-management planning on the scale of the land-management Florida uses to designate areas for development and preservation.

“Protected areas in the ocean seem draconian to some, but the fact is, what little management we’ve practiced in the past isn’t working,” says Ault, the University of Miami fisheries professor.

At the Florida Institute of Oceanography in St. Petersburg, director John C. Ogden, a biologist at the University of South Florida, thinks about the health of the ocean in human terms. There may be several factors making you unhealthy — a high-stress job, too much coffee, too many beers, and not enough sleep. You may not be able to change everything — your job, say — but changing what you can would make a big difference in your overall health. “If we reduce those stresses that can be reduced, the system itself can be better-equipped to handle those stresses that cannot be reduced,” Ogden says.

“Our struggle in Florida, as we grow, is to create reasonable ways of minimizing disturbance,” says Ogden. “We’re not doing it because we’re tree-huggers. We’ve got to do it because the ocean environment of Florida is key to Florida’s future economy.”


"StopLFAS WorldWIDE!"

Insist that people be told the truth about LFAS and other high intensity

For additional updates go to this URL: