Clouds Over the Coral

A Murky Tale of the Florida Reefs. Is Salvation Possible?

It was 20 years ago that I first dove the clear and fertile waters of the Florida Keys. Just five protected miles off Key West, the reef was close enough to get to in a small boat, shallow enough for any snorkeler to enjoy, and teeming with colorful sea fans, coral canyons and a kaleidoscope of parrot fish, queen angels and sergeant-majors in crystal clear waters. I remember wading off the beach and plucking lobster, conch and stone crab from waist-deep waters for a dinner beneath the palms. Key West was a sleepy, half boarded-up fishing village, a tropical getaway at the end of the world.

Photo Frink/Waterhouse/H. Armstrong Roberts

Not for long. With visions of Palm Beach and Disneyland dancing in their heads, the county fathers—at one time running on a platform known as “The Concrete Coalition”—zeroed in on the cash cow of tourism. Roads and bridges were upgraded, a new water main and electric tie-line were put in, and a Tourist Development Council (TDC) was created to spend up to $10 million a year promoting the Florida Keys as a destination resort.

It was all too successful. Today, over 2.5 million tourists a year flock to the Keys. The last 15 years has seen an explosion of residential and commercial development, cramming 85,000 residents into 25 low, flat islands, most less than a mile across. Hundreds more small islands remain uninhabited in a system of refuges and parks. Protected by shallow turtle grass beds on the west, and the reef line on the east, the Keys are a haven for water birds, game fish, and 31 endangered species. All are suffering from the wages of popularity.

A Reef in Crisis

But it is the warm and hospitable waters that have garnered the Keys’ greatest notoriety, and which are feeling the greatest pressure for survival. According to a 1996 study sponsored jointly by the TDC, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and The Nature Conservancy, almost a third of all Keys visitors—800,000 people a year—go snorkeling or scuba diving, and pump $53 million into the local economy from reef and dive trips alone. In total expenditures, reef admirers contribute 40 percent of the Keys’ $1.15 billion total tourist revenues.

Even before the devastating 1998 hurricane season, however, people like long-time dive shop owner Cecilia Roycraft had been watching the Keys steadily slip from their place of prominence in the diving world. “We would all like to go back in time,” she reflects. “Visibility consistently 100 feet or greater in the 1970s, now rarely reaches 50 feet. We’re seeing a natural progression of poor water quality, algae growth and coral disease. It’s happening worldwide.”

The visitors are noticing too. In the TDC survey, the quality of the coral got the highest disappointment rating of any category of natural resource except beaches. Water visibility came third.

One of the hypotheses floating around had been that the area needed a good hurricane to rinse things out. In the fall of 1998, powerful Hurricane Georges and tropical storm Mitch put the theory to the test, hitting the Keys in rapid succession. Early reports are mixed, with some areas buried and broken, others barely touched, but many showing surprising new growth. Enduring as it does on the edge of ocean, sky and land, the beautiful and complex coral reef ecosystem is inexorably linked with our planet’s health, and glimpsing its secrets tells us much about how the interplay between technology and natural forces shapes our future.

A Trip To The Reef

Reef Relief, a nonprofit organization started in 1986 by Craig and DeeVon Quirolo, reaches out nationally to raise awareness of reef problems. A few months before the storm, I joined Craig Quirolo on his rounds surveying a part of Key West’s Sand Key, as part of a project to monitor the condition of the reef. “When we started Reef Relief, we thought the biggest problem was too much direct contact—people standing on the reef, or boats dropping their anchors among coral formations. What we didn’t realize was that direct impacts are only a small part of the problem.”

As we put on our gear, we noticed a boat apparently drifting in our direction. In a dramatic illustration of the constant dangers facing populated reef areas, the boat turned out to be a derelict vessel which, if not for our interception, would have been pounded and rolled over the coral by the waves.

“One more piece of coral saved,” said Quirolo with a wry smile.

Our 40 minute dive gave me a primer on coral diseases. The ubiquitous “yellow band”; fast spreading “white plague type 2”; “hyperplasia” (distended polyps); aspergillus fungus on the sea fans; and some rare winter bleaching all graced our video screen. “1997 was the worst year of coral bleaching in 20 years, or maybe ever,” Quirolo told me, “and we’re trying to determine, among other things, if there is a relationship between the bleaching and the diseases.”

Many Causes

In his book Sirens of Titan, Kurt Vonnegut invents a place where everyone is always right no matter what they say. That’s what it feels like listening to the debate about Florida’s ailing coral reefs. It’s a local problem; it’s a global problem. It’s the weather; it’s the tourists. Not enough fresh water; too much fresh water. Inadequate sewer treatment; too much sewer treatment. The government is doing everything they can to clean the water and save the reef; the government is polluting the water and destroying the reef. It’s a natural cycle of reef growth and death; it’s the extinction of Florida’s coral. All contain a piece of the truth; none tell the whole story. But there is one thing everyone agrees on, and that is painfully obvious even to the most casual snorkeler: most of Florida’s coral reef is sick and dying quickly.

Lee Sterling, a professional Keys dive guide and instructor on the scene since 1976, gives a graphic appraisal: “In the last few years, the visibility and sediment have become so bad the lobsters have to come out of their holes and stand up on the rocks to feel their way. Some days I swear the water even tastes funny. There’s no future for the dive industry in Key West.”

A healthy coral formation attracts schools of fish in
the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
Photo Brian Parker/Tom Stack & Associates

Corals have withstood tremendous variations in climate in the 200 million years since they evolved in primeval oceans. Ice ages and continental drift constantly changed water depths and temperatures beyond the narrow limits of 75 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit, and light penetration that corals need to survive.

But those changes took place over thousands of years, giving new corals a chance to migrate and adapt. The present worldwide decline has occurred almost entirely in the past 20 years, an eye blink in evolutionary history. And that decline has been precipitous. At the Seventh International Coral Reef Symposium held in Guam in 1992, it was announced that at the present rate, 70 percent of the world’s reefs would disappear in a generation. And according to Fishery Bulletin, 22 of 35 local fish species have been officially overfished, le

ading to “substantial changes” in the coral ecosystem.

To no one’s surprise, a direct relationship was also found between reef decline and the proximity of human populations. Of the 30 percent of the world’s reefs listed at the symposium in “stable” condition (not presently threatened), almost all are far out in the Pacific or Indian Oceans. Only 10 percent of Atlantic reefs, all in the Bahamas and scattered off the Central American coast, are listed as healthy.

“The Keys reef tract has the unfortunate distinction of being the destination of choice for the wealthiest people on Earth. The level of impact wouldn’t be as bad if we were off the coast of Venezuela,” says Center for Marine Conservation’s Keys Project Director Dave Holtz.

Not all the causes of reef decline can be blamed on people, though. There is evidence of periodic outbreaks of coral diseases in the past, and natural weather patterns and storms like Hurricane Georges can damage large areas. In the Atlantic, a fungus of unknown origin spread from Panama in the 1980s and wiped out the entire sea urchin population in the Gulf and Caribbean in a matter of years. Sea urchins are voracious algae eaters, and their absence caused a definite rise in algae. At the same time, an increasing number of El Nino events was causing high summer water temperatures, stimulating coral bleaching (a usually non-fatal condition where the coral stops growing and turns white), and suppressing the hurricanes that normally flush out Florida Bay. A drought in South Florida (helped by agricultural drainage projects) lowered the fresh water to the Bay. These events suspiciously coincided with a massive die-off of Florida Bay seagrass and a nasty looking “dead zone” extending hundreds of square miles and washing out onto the reef tract.

A healthy reef can recover from such natural events. But Florida’s reef—like most reefs in populated areas—has been weakened by human abuses, and is more susceptible to permanent injury. What would have been normal bleaching and disease outbreaks have now become widespread killers.

A 1997 Environmental Protection Agency reef survey of 160 locations found three times as many places and species infected with coral diseases than just a year before. A previous study, from 1984 to 1992, showed a decline in living coral cover of up to 44 percent. Says Dr. James Porter of the University of Georgia, one of the study participants: “The obvious visual evidence is that the reef is suffering, and has been getting steadily worse for 15 years. But we need data to show scientifically whether the dramatic deterioration we’re seeing is long term and system-wide.”

What can be done? With so many variables, and so many massive natural systems interacting, it’s not surprising that scientists are having a hard time locking down causes and effects. For practically every suggested blame and corresponding cure, there is a counter-argument that the treatment will be harmful or ineffective.

One example is the mooring buoy program, designed to keep anchors from being thrown on coral heads. Unfortunately, mooring buoys also point the way to the best dive sites, attracting more use. “Mooring buoys are tombstones,” says dive captain Sterling. “They meant well, and do keep anchors off the reef, but instead of easing the pressure on the most popular spots, it just opened up new ones.” In any case, it now appears that tourist use cannot explain much of the damage. “The diseases are everywhere, even places tourists never go,” says Quirolo. “I’m convinced it’s the water quality that is triggering most of these effects.”

Enter The Sanctuary

Water quality is only one of the challenges facing Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Superintendent Billy Causey. Bombarded with criticism seemingly from all sides, Causey has maintained his famous unflappable demeanor through eight years of acrimonious public hearings. The Sanctuary’s 1997 Final Management Plan is long on lofty policy goals and short on binding regulation. The Draft Plan had set aside just five percent of the Sanctuary’s 3,674 square miles as “no-take” zones, but even this was too much for local fishermen. The Final Plan cut that in half, and included areas which were already protected.

Still, the Sanctuary claims that its no-take zones “protect over 65 percent of the shallow, spur and groove reef habitat”; discharge and dumping rules are strengthened; and, perhaps most importantly, oil drilling is banned and shipping routes are moved further offshore to prevent disastrous groundings.

By far the most contentious area of concern is “water quality.” The Sanctuary’s management document calls water quality “the major factor affecting the health of the living coral reef, the seagrasses and fisheries stocks in the Florida Keys…f water quality of the Keys is not restored, the decline in the health of the living coral reef resources will continue.”

That the water is dirty is beyond dispute. For the first time in memory, Florida Bay (the shallow seagrass area between the Keys and the mainland on the Gulf side), once crystal clear except during storms, today remains cloudy all the way to Key West practically year-round. Algae coats the sea grass and lays in mats on the sea floor, covering the sponges and corals.

Photo Brian Parker/Tom Stack & Associates

Dr. Porter speaks for many when he blames the sick coral on “a deterioration in overall water quality, which leads to an increase in the coral’s susceptibility to disease.” Some, like Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution scientist Brian LaPointe, go even further, and point to a definite source for the pollution. “Corals require clear, nutrient-free waters to survive. The increasing nutrient concentration in coastal waters from land-based sources is the single biggest threat to coral reef health.”

The primary pollutant groups are “nutrients” (compounds of nitrogen and phosphorus that come from sewage and fertilizer), and chemical pollution (insecticides, heavy metals and other toxic chemicals in stormwater, wastewater and engine discharges). Nutrients foster the growth of algae, which use up oxygen in the water, smother coral and decrease visibility. In the Keys, the two local sources of pollution and nutrients are runoff and wastewater disposal from the islands themselves, and the water flowing out of the agricultural areas of South Florida and through the Everglades to Florida Bay.

Some groups think the no-brainer is to simply cut off the nutrient discharges from these local sources. “The first generation to scuba may be the last to enjoy these reefs unless we adopt a policy of zero discharge now,” says Reef Relief’s DeeVon Quirolo. This attitude echos a 1996 state hearing officer finding that Monroe County had exceeded the carrying capacity of its waters to absorb nutrients. But nutrient cleanup is expensive, running into the billions of dollars, and government officials claim that the science is not good enough yet to start pumping money into such solutions.

“Denial is not just a river in Egypt,” says DeeVon Quirolo. “We have a billion gallons of sewage being pumped each year into shallow injection wells, being released just 20 to 60 feet below the surface into porous limestone; and another 30,000 private septic

tanks and cesspits pouring their sewage directly into the ground. At the Key West outfall, 40 percent of all the sewage in the Keys is dumped directly into nearshore waters heading for the reef. There are leaking sewer pipes, and 700 tons of nutrients are discharged into Keys waters each year from agricultural runoff in the Everglades. Every one of these discharges should be addressed by the state and federal boards in charge. But instead, they just sit there and scratch their heads and wonder why the water is so cloudy, and then order more studies while Rome burns.”

Part of the problem is the variety of responsible agencies, all using different treatment standards, and pointing at each other for enforcement. Half of all Keys sewage is regulated by the Department of Health for private homes. But enforcement is left to the county, and according to Monroe County Director of Marine Resources George Garrett, less than 500 of the county’s 25,000 home sewage systems have any nutrient treatment at all. The state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), in charge of the largest individual discharges, does not regulate nutrients either.

Fertilizer from South Florida’s sugar fields is another seemingly obvious suspect being defended by the agencies. Water goes from the sugar fields, through the Everglades, and out into Florida Bay. But is it causing the algae bloom that is infecting the reef? “Blaming the [Everglades] agricultural areas for the problems at the reef is just shooting from the hip,” says EPA Field Officer Bill Kruczynski. “Our experts tell us that not one molecule of nitrogen can make it through to Florida Bay. The nitrogen starved grasses absorb it all.”

I asked Billy Causey why the water is so cloudy—with algae and coral diseases flourishing, typical symptoms of nutrient loading—if these local sources of nutrients are not getting to the reef. “Cumulative stress, stormwater runoff, increased boating impacts, sea urchin loss, water temperature, and we have to look at the Gulf Stream as a product of the larger Gulf ecosystem,” he says. “Flooding in recent years has increased the flow from other pollution sources like the Mississippi, the panhandle, Tampa, Charlotte Harbor and Naples. The El Ninos of 1983, 1987, 1990 and 1997 all coincided with large bleaching events, and each year they have become incrementally worse, opening up corals to an increase of diseases. We receive reports of algae blooms, marine toxins and increased bleaching very similar to symptoms from all over the world practically daily. The seagrass die-off and green water in the Bay seem to correspond more with global changes in weather than with local changes in nutrient release; it goes on and on. I don’t know the answers—that’s what our studies are trying to figure out. Yes, there are elevated nitrates and ammonia in the water, but to point the finger at any one cause, like sewage or agriculture, is just wrong.”

There are so many theories for the death of Florida Bay that they have names. In addition to the Salinity Theory (too little fresh water), the Everglades Theory (too much fresh water), and the Outhouse Theory (wastewater nutrients from the Gulf states and the Keys), there are the Topless Theory (the grass-grazing members of the food chain, like turtles and manatees, have disappeared), the Senility Theory (too long since a good hurricane to flush out the system), the Strangulation Theory (normal tidal flows strangled by the miles of Keys causeways), and, of course, old faithful, Sea Level Rise and Global Warming.

Although all the theories probably have some validity, the best scientific evidence always seems to come back to nutrients. A February 1998 article in Science proclaims a “global nitrogen overload” from exponential increases in worldwide fertilizer use.

But despite the lively debate about which source is the major culprit of reef decline, all are targeted for elimination; the only dispute is timing. “Whether land-based nutrients are reaching the reef or not is irrelevant, because there is no question that they are harming the shore waters. That alone is a good enough reason to eliminate all sources as fast as we can,” says EPA’s Kruczynski. Both the state and the Sanctuary are monitoring water quality and reef diseases, and experimenting with sewage treatment techniques for nutrient removal. The city of Key West will start “deep well” injecting its effluent (another controversial procedure) sometime after the year 2000. And a new sewage treatment plant is planned for Marathon, the second largest population center in the Keys after Key West.
But these things take time. “I’ll fall over dead if that [Marathon] plant happens in 10 years,” says DEP’s Key West project manager G.P. Schmall. At the present rate, it will take 100 years to upgrade just half of the county’s old septic fields. A massive retooling of the Everglades canal system to recreate historic flows and water quality is in the planning stages, but will take decades to implement. Meanwhile, nutrients continue to flow into the water, and reef diseases multiply.

The frustration in folks like Holtz and Quirolo who have been warning of these dangers for years is evident. “The efforts just don’t seem to be able to keep pace with the decline,” laments Holtz. Responds Kruczynski, “Are we trying to do some things? Yes. Are we doing them quickly enough to save the reef? I hope so.”