Ocean Issues by John Christopher Fine, NAUI #4431
He had just returned from a United Nations conference on the environment held in Bonn,
Germany. “I spoke about global warming,” Robert Aisi, the UN Ambassador from Papua
New Guinea, said.
“If you can imagine the environmental problems in developed countries, think of the conditions in undeveloped countries where they don’t even know the environmental harm they are doing and where there are no controls,” he added.
I described ocean conditions I witnessed over the previous months doing research on the effects of pollution on coral reefs off the coast of South Florida.
In a spot just south of the Boynton Beach Inlet, just north of the City of Delray Beach’s sewage outfall pipe, I found two species of algae growing over the reefs.
One was the blue-green algae Lyngbya; and the other, Geramium, a red-brown algae. Both forms predominated in an algae cocktail with other species. The algae overgrew hard and soft coral, sponges, and other marine life. In the wake of the algae other organisms died, choked by thick beard-like overgrowth.
Florida’s hurricanes during the summer of 2004, devastated many homes and businesses on land. The offshore reefs in the Boynton Beach-Delray Beach area suffered very little physical damage. Some sand shifted over shallow inshore reefs but the main reef structure located from three-quarters to a mile offshore, where I have been doing my research, was not harmed.
At the time the hurricanes acted like a gigantic broom. The algae had been swept clear of the reefs. It was gone. Even on the reefs closest to the Boynton Beach Inlet, a drainage ditch established to act as a conduit to carry polluted water from the Intracoastal Waterway into the ocean, the algae was gone.
Where algae had lodged on soft gorgonian coral, that part of the sea fan was dead. Hard corals too were dead in spots where the algae had been. Remarkably, those portions of coral that had not been covered by the algae were still alive. Patches of life continued where coral colonies exhibited extensive damage from the algae. In most cases the entire parts of the organism that had been covered by algae were dead.
“Yes, but we were not smart enough to take steps to change the conditions nature corrected,” Ambassador Aisi said.
He was right. As I flew directly east from the Palm Beach International Airport recently, I spotted a raw sewage spill in the ocean about a mile offshore. The brown plumes trailed for miles north and south over the reef line.
The Delray Beach sewer pipe was ordered closed April 1, 2009, by order of the Governor of Florida. All five remaining sewage outfall pipes are slated to close. They have been operating without permits and in violation of law for a long time. Municipalities say they are not prepared to deal with the sewage effluent otherwise. Delray Beach is deep-well injecting the sewage to get rid of it as an alternative to direct ocean dumping.
On Memorial Day 2009, Captain Smart spotted the Delray Beach sewage pipe in operation again. Heavy rains created a situation where city officials decided to release partially treated sewage again. They received 24 million gallons and could only inject 17 million into deep wells, they told Ed Tichnor of Reef Rescue. Delray Beach admitted illegally dumping of sewage into the ocean through the “closed” sewer pipe.
I photographed beach closings. Hastily lettered signs by lifeguards and Palm Beach County officials warned, during the height of the Easter tourist season, that sewage spills presented health hazards to swimmers.
Algae was growing back. My underwater research area showed a rapid progression of re-growth by the offending algae. The pattern followed the same as it had when I first noticed the problem many years before.
Lyngbya and Geramium along with a general cocktail of other microscopic algae began as small accumulations on gorgonian sea fans and on hard madrepore corals.
The beard-like masses increased daily. As the overall mass of accumulated algal growth
increased, more coral was taken over.
Tufts of loose ball-like algae were occurring on top of Lynn’s Reef, just south of the Boynton Inlet, in about 45 feet of water.
The general reef structure from south of Delray Beach to the Boynton Beach Inlet is oriented north-south. These reefs are from a fifty to a few hundred yards wide in places. The depth remains about the same. Inshore the top of the reef is in about 50-60 feet. Eastward, on the deeper, outside reef depth is about 80 to 85 feet.
Visibility depends on many factors. The Gulf Stream meanders inshore from its usual main course about five miles out. The Gulf Stream can be very swift, as fast as two to three knots and more. Eddies from the Stream can circle around. It is not uncommon to have southward flowing currents on some days although the prevailing effect of the Gulf Stream is a northerly flowing current.
The effect of the swift northward flowing waters of the Gulf Stream is to clear away pollutants from South Florida’s Atlantic waters. With less fury than hurricanes, the regular pull of the Gulf Stream carries pollutants from the reefs and inshore ocean environment and carries them out into the Atlantic.
Pollutants high in nitrogen, food for algal growth, come from direct ocean dumping of sewage. In Palm Beach County alone, recent statistics reveal that 395 million gallons of sewage is pumped into the Atlantic Ocean every day. Sewage treatment does not remove nitrogen. Inland, the county pumps 400 million more gallons of untreated sewage into deep wells.
Dr. Brian LaPointe, a researcher at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, has found vents in the ocean that reveal 40 psi (pounds per square inch) water containing pollutants coming into the ocean. The researcher concluded these vents of polluted water are the result of the deep well injection of sewage that eventually finds its way along Florida’s geological strata into the ocean.
In addition no storm drain is connected to any system to remove nitrogen or any other pollutant from rain water, run off and other forms of wastewater that goes directly into the Intracoastal thence, at tide change, into the Atlantic Ocean. Some cities are trying settling ponds to cope with massive runoff issues but this is only a small percentage of the storm drain water overall.
The residual of road run off, agricultural run off, golf course and lawn fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, animal feces and the mass of accumulated waste of all kinds that is washed into storm drains when it rains adds to the dilemma facing the ocean environment.
Evaporation also causes pollutants to fall back into the ocean in the form of rain. Ammonia and the residue of animal waste evaporates in Florida’s tropical sun. When it rains these pollutants return to earth. They are high in nitrogen.
South Florida is crossed with huge canals. These ditches are designed to prevent flooding in western areas where developers have built into the swamps and Everglades.
These canals carry runoff from agriculture directly to the Intracoastal thence into the ocean. Agriculture uses large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous based fertilizers. In Florida large quantities of pesticide and insecticide must be used to protect crops.
The run off from the land, carried by these canals, adds to the toxins that eventually enter the ocean environment. Poisons and toxic wastes of all kinds enter the food chain from the direct effect of human pollution of the ocean environment. Fish stocks and shellfish have accumulated heavy metals such as mercury and cadmium and also the various toxins from past and present use of pesticides.
What is visible underwater is only the tip of a colossal environmental tragedy that is unfolding not only off the coast of South Florida but around the world. We are poisoning ourselves. We know it but refuse to stop.
In South Florida the dilemma is exaggerated by rampant and uncontrolled development and population growth. The land, basically only swamp and sand dune, cannot support this increasing population growth. There is not enough water.
The South Florida Water Management District is charged with flood control. When it rains, Lake Okeechobee fills up. The lake is a diked and leveed gigantic reservoir. Torrential tropical rains cause the lake and many areas in former swamplands to rise. Storage capacity for fresh water is very limited in South Florida.
Water managers therefore open canal gates and throw fresh water away. This water contains pollutants as we have said, but it is also vitally needed. There is not enough water in South Florida to support the population.
The objective has been to prevent flooding. Water management schemes have all been designed to get rid of fresh water. A project has been undertaken to spend billions of dollars to correct human errors in planning, restore Everglades areas, and establish water storage. This is a long range project that will require decades to complete, if it is ever completed. When completed it is still doubtful that it will competently deal with the problem.
Floridians in Palm Beach County are periodically told not to water their lawns, not to wash their cars; they do not receive a glass of water in restaurants unless they ask for it. At the same time the fresh water they need, laden with various harmful elements, is being thrown into the Atlantic Ocean.
“If this keeps up then cities will be underwater. Global warming is a serious matter,” Ambassador Aisi emphasized.
The oceans of the world are rising, there is an inability to manage needed supplies of fresh water. Development has taken over natural habitats that filter and protect water supplies. What is being thrown away ends up in the ocean, killing reefs and poisoning our food chain.
Dire consequences for people who have not been able to benefit from nature’s fury. The one benefit of the hurricanes was to sweep South Florida’s reefs clean. The storms only temporarily discouraged its root cause, a population growth never envisioned for a fragile land.
NAUI Instructor John Christopher Fine is a marine biologist and an expert in marine and maritime affairs. His pioneering investigations revealed criminal dumping of toxic and hazardous wastes into the ocean and natural environment on land. He is the author of 24 books, many about ocean sciences.