The Delicate Fabric of the World’s Coastal Regions is Being Torn Apart
Rachel Carson, best known for exposing the dangers of DDT in her classic Silent Spring, was also a keen observer of our coasts. “The shore is an ancient world, for as long as there has been an Earth and sea there has been this place of the meeting of land and water,” she wrote in her 1955 book, The Edge of the Sea.
In principle, millions of us appear to feel similarly. Some two-thirds of the Earth’s population now live within 50 miles of the sea; nine of the world’s 10 largest cities are in coastal zones. The U.S. coasts support a third of our national employment—more than 28 million jobs. At the same time, about two-thirds of all the fish caught for our consumption spend their early lives in ecosystems where the oceans meet the land. In America, commercial and recreational fishing in near-shore waters is a $65 billion industry.
Yet, with frightening rapidity, Carson’s “intricate fabric of life” is being devastated by human activities. The onslaught is hydra-headed: pollution from industrial and household wastes and agricultural run-off; massive fish die-offs caused by oil spills and the cooling-water intakes of electrical plants; diversions of freshwater from dams; global warming and ozone layer depletion. The tragic fact is, coastal habitat is disintegrating at a rate unprecedented in recorded history.
“Some of the pollution issues are reversible,” says Ken Hinman of the National Coalition for Marine Conservation. “There are a lot of examples where we’ve been able to clean up and restore waterways. The ocean is resilient enough to come back. But the biggest threats are the irreversible changes to the coastline—the filling of wetlands and destruction of barrier islands. How do we reverse the tide of development?” To get a clearer picture of how urgent this situation is, let’s take a look back at the events of 1997:
* CORAL REEFS. Nearly one-third of the Earth’s fish species live along these multi-tiered biological marvels which cover about 160,000 square miles in tropical and sub-tropical regions. In Asia, the overwhelming majority of species live on or near reefs, which coastal fishermen rely upon to feed their families. Besides providing shelter and breeding areas, reefs also serve to protect coastlines from storm damage and beach erosion. According to a global study by Australia’s Institute of Marine Science in 1992, 10 percent had already degraded “beyond recognition,” another 30 percent were in “critical condition,” and still another 30 percent were likely to disappear altogether within the next several decades.
Since that report came out, things have taken an abrupt turn for the worse. Between last January and August, “rapid wasting disease” wiped out huge patches of coral in a 2,000-mile swath ranging from Mexico into the Caribbean. As far away as the Philippines, reefs were being struck by a variety of diseases not seen before. “The problems are occurring at all depths, and the number of species affected is increasing,” says Dr. James Porter, a marine ecologist at the University of Georgia who discovered a mysterious epidemic labeled “white pox.” The outbreak observed last February in the waters off Key West, Florida, along the only living coral reef in the continental U.S. In some areas, it appeared to have eliminated 80 percent of the marine animals. And this was only the latest malady to strike there, following in the wake of “black band” and “white plague II.”
There are no sewage treatment plants in the Florida Keys. According to many scientists, the likely cause of the reef’s woes is nutrient pollution from thousands of septic tanks and the untreated outflows from dozens of hotels and resorts.
* WETLANDS. Both the Bush and Clinton Administrations have declared policies of “no net loss” of wetlands, the vital coastal areas utilized by fish, birds and other wildlife. Wetlands not only filter contaminants from the water, but provide sponge-like storage for heavy rains that could otherwise cause damaging floods. Over the years, more than half of the wetlands that existed during colonial times in the continental U.S. have been drained or filled for development; that includes 90 percent of California’s original five million acres.
Last September, in the first comprehensive survey since 1990, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced that over one million additional acres of wetlands vanished between 1985 and 1995. That’s about five percent of the 50 million acres remaining. The losses were especially heavy around agricultural land, which Environmental Defense Fund specialist Tim Searchinger termed “unexpected, shocking and very disturbing.” Meantime, a congressional bill introduced by the Republicans would change the definition of wetlands—exempting many agricultural, oil, gas, and timber projects from stricter protective regulations.
* SHRIMP FARMS. After canned tuna, shrimp ranks as our favorite seafood. The average American consumes about 2.5 pounds a year, one pound higher than 20 years ago. Domestic harvesting of wild shrimp remains a $5 billion, 200-million-pounds-a-year industry, but is unable to keep up with the demand. So imports for processing have soared to more than 600 million pounds annually, primarily coming from shrimp aquaculture facilities in Asia and Latin America.
But shrimp from those overseas operations are transporting something else—exotic viruses causing what the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) calls “catastrophic” losses at U.S. shrimp farm/processing facilities along the Gulf and South Atlantic coastlines. These viruses are not harmful to humans but, as an NMFS report warned in the summer of 1997: “These outbreaks have raised concerns that viruses could spread from aquaculture facilities to the wild shrimp stocks in U.S. coastal waters with potentially serious implications.”
NMFS went on to describe the 1987 collapse of the Pacific blue shrimp fishery in the Gulf of California, after wild stocks became infected with a virus known as IHHN. Commercial harvesting had to be stopped for six years. The virus had arrived in an imported shipment of post-larval Pacific white shrimp from Asia. Since then, new outbreaks—particularly the Taura virus, which was first confirmed in 1992 in an Ecuadorian river of that name—have plagued shrimp farms in Texas, Louisiana, and South Carolina. The fear is that this virus will be transmitted to wild shrimp by discharges of wastes or sediments from the farm ponds.
Back at the source, the boom in shrimp aquaculture in developing nations like Thailand has wrought havoc on the mangrove forests that once lined nearly three-quarters of the world’s tropical shorelines. For centuries, the mangroves have been essential in sustaining food chains and stabilizing coastal lands. In Thailand, now the world’s leading exporter of seafood, thousands of miles of coastline have been saturated with pollutants as the shrimp farmers simply leave behind one pond for another.
* RED TIDES AND THE “CELL FROM HELL”. Scientists term them “HABs,” short for Harmful Algal Blooms, the growth and accumulation of microscopic marine plants that cause “red tides.” These blooms are extremely toxic, both to the marine life feeding upon them and to people wh
o eat contaminated shellfish. Over the past decade, the number of such single-celled algal species has soared from 22 to 55 around the globe. Outbreaks once found only around certain coastal areas of Europe and the U.S. have spread to Asia and Latin America. Some of this is naturally occurring, as ocean currents deposit seed populations. But algal species are also transferred by the ballast water from ships, and appear to flourish when pollutants add excessive nutrients to the water.
“Red tide off Florida’s West Coast comes back nearly every year,” says scientific expert Donald Anderson of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “Large expanses of coastline are closed because of toxins in shellfish. It’s eliminated 10 percent of the endangered manatee population, driven countless tourists from beaches, and killed millions of fish.”
Last September, Texas imposed a nearly statewide ban on harvesting oysters, clams and mussels after a red tide killed millions of small fish. Around the same time, panic ensued when a microbe, pfiesteria piscida, appeared in several rivers of the Chesapeake Bay system in Maryland and Virginia. Not only did the so-called “cell from hell” kill thousands of menhaden bait-fish, it caused severe rashes, flu-like symptoms and even memory loss in humans who came in contact with it.
Pfiesteria was first detected by North Carolina botanist JoAnn Burkholder in 1988, after mysterious fish kills occurred in local rivers. Burkholder found that the organism thrived in high-growth population areas, correlating to phosphate levels around sewage outfall pipes. Since then, run-off from hog and chicken farms has been identified as another probable cause.
According to the Washington-based Coast Alliance, “Fertilizer and manure, along with more than a billion tons of eroded soil, run off farm fields into coastal waters every year. Almost 30 million pounds of pesticides are annually applied in areas that drain into the nation’s coasts.”
* FOREIGN INVADERS. Consider the Asian clam, which probably arrived in San Francisco Bay in the bilge or attached to the hull of a foreign ship. Since it was first observed here in 1986, the Asian clam has become the dominant bottom-feeding shellfish in the bay. It is also feasted upon by ducks, sturgeon, crabs and other species. The trouble is, the Asian clam happens to soak up pollutants extremely rapidly.
In March 1997, a study released by the U.S. Geological Survey showed concentrations of selenium in Asian clams to be two to three times higher than in native clam species. Back in the mid-1980s, selenium discharged from six oil refineries bordering the bay killed or deformed thousands of birds. Now, higher-than-anticipated selenium levels have been found in two species of diving ducks, and reproductive problems are being noticed in ducks migrating from the bay region to Alaska.
* EL NINO AND GLOBAL WARMING. Generally, when scientists forecast the ominous future probabilities from greenhouse gases heating up our atmosphere, the coastal focus is on rising sea levels and more intense hurricanes. These are indeed very real threats: If sea levels rise by two feet, as the Clinton Administration has predicted, the U.S. would lose 10,000 square miles of coastal property and islands such as the Bahamas and the Marshalls could be inundated. In the tropical North Atlantic, where most hurricanes originate, surface water temperatures are the highest since record-keeping began in 1865, supporting projections of more frequent and much stronger storms.
Less talked about is the impact of climate change on coastal fisheries. In 1995, marine scientists observed an 80 percent decline in zooplankton off the California coast. These tiny animals are a primary food source for hundreds of fish and bird species. Zooplankton drift with ocean currents and survive by feeding on microscopic phytoplankton plants. A warmer ocean makes it harder for nutrient-rich deep waters to rise and replenish the elements needed for phytoplankton growth. Data in the California study area found that sea surface temperatures have already increased between two and three degrees Fahrenheit over the past 42 years.
Higher sea levels and increased erosion are also predicted, and that’s already beginning to make trouble for coastal development. In Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, for example, a nine-story condo complex that cost $22 million to build is in imminent danger of being washed out to sea, and its angry homeowners’ association is demanding that it be allowed to build a protective seawall—illegal under state laws. The question is now being asked: How far should the government go in providing federal disaster relief to property owners who knowingly defy nature in building so close to an increasingly restive sea?
The much-discussed El Nino occurrence, while a natural event, is a dramatic reversal of the typical planetary weather pattern. Arising in the tropical Pacific, it triggers a shifting jet stream around the Earth. “It worries me that the El Nino pattern of weakened winds and warmer than normal waters is happening more and more frequently,” says Dr. Richard Gammon of the University of Washington. Gammon and other scientists are convinced of a direct link to global warming. A 1991 workshop organized by the United Nations Environment Program and the National Center of Atmospheric Research concluded that El Nino event may become more frequent, because of changes in the upper ocean temperature associated with global warming.
In 1982 and 1983, El Nino’s advent saw a marked decline in harvests of the prized chinook salmon on the west coast. “By 1984, we were catching these long, skinny salmon. The herring and forage fish also went to hell,” recalls Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. This time around, things could be far worse. Last summer, NMFS scientists studying the central and northern California coast found the sea temperatures as high as 14 degrees above normal. Such a trend can be deadly to nutrient-rich, near-shore regions that support fish populations.
“Any cold-water bottomfish is in for a tough reproductive season if El Nino persists into the winter and spring of 1998,” says John Hunter, chief of the federal government’s coastal fisheries division in La Jolla, California. “They do not go with the flow, as do many of the pelagic fish [marlin, tuna and sharks].”
William Hogarth, NMFS’ acting regional administrator for the Southwest, sees another factor at work. “If the El Nino episode strengthens, we should see tropical and temperate marine species shift northward beyond their normal range and other changes in marine life.”
It’s not just El Nino. Last year, scientists found the first direct evidence that ultraviolet rays penetrating the ozone layer over Antarctica were causing damage to the DNA of higher animals. First they saw reduced reproduction rates in plant microorganisms on the underside of the ice—and the base of the food chain. There was also extensive damage in the eggs and larvae of icefish. “It is striking how closely the damage to the fish eggs tracked with the increased intensity of ultraviolet light,” said Dr. William Detrich of Northeastern University.
Turning the Tide?
But amid all of this grim news, there are some hopeful signs. An International Coral R
eef Initiative was formally adopted by many nations in 1995, with Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park becoming a model for similar programs. Thailand brought in experts from the University of Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Center to form a management plan for Phuket Island, where new tourist resorts are now required to build on-site sewage treatment plants and reduce sediments washing into the waters. The entire country has since adopted a National Coral Reef Strategy.
Environmentalists are beginning to pressure international lending institutions like the World Bank to cancel their financial support for massive dam-building projects like the under-construction Three Gorges Dam in China, scheduled to be the largest hydroelectric dam in the world by 2009. Such projects are responsible for altering freshwater flows and thus decimating many fish species that depend upon rivers for spawning; half of the original Pacific salmon runs on our West Coast have been lost due to dams, and many others are threatened.
The amended Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act passed by Congress in 1996 ordered the NMFS and its eight regional councils to describe and identify “essential fish habitat” in each of 39 existing fishery management plans. This, according to the National Coalition for Marine Conservation’s Hinman, “finally gives fishermen and managers a stronger voice when it comes to protecting habitat.”
The Boston Harbor offers one encouraging example of an ongoing and successful clean-up. Since dumping of untreated sludge and grease into the harbor was stopped in 1991, water clarity and oxygen levels have noticeably improved. New pumping stations have cut pollution from sewer overflow pipes by 70 percent. Bluefish, striped bass, and cod have returned in substantial numbers; harbor seals have been seen swimming near the New England Aquarium.
The Rhode Island coast has been the victim of two damaging oil spills over the past decade, the one in 1996 killing more than a million lobsters. Now the federal government is using $270,000 from a settlement with one tanker owner to build artificial stone reefs where lobsters can hide. “What we are trying to do is mimic the natural ecosystems of Narragansett Bay,” says project director John Catena.
Salt marsh restoration, like this beach grass planting project in
Fishkill, New York, is a hopeful sign of coastal regeneration.
K. Condyles / Impact Visuals
The Coast Alliance, a nonprofit organization formed in 1979 to combat development pressure and pollution, is today working with more than 300 state and local groups. One of the Alliance’s primary missions is expansion of the Coastal Barrier Resources System, established by Congress in 1982. The system currently includes 1.27 million acres of underdeveloped beaches, dunes, wetlands and barrier islands. While not prohibiting new development altogether, the program eliminated long-standing federal subsidies for private construction in these fragile ecological areas. This has begun to put a significant crimp in beachfront building, although in 1996 a coalition of Florida landowners and developers succeeded in getting Congress to delete 70 acres from the system.
More than 100 efforts in integrated coastal zone management have sprung up in recent years around the globe. Pilot projects are underway in Asia; six East African nations have agreed to make such management government policy. Marine reserves, first established in the 1970s, now include coral reefs, kelp forests, mangroves, salt marshes, sea grass meadows and subtidal/intertidal habitats. Yet, as Michael Berrill points out in his 1997 book The Plundered Seas, “conflicting pressures of the competing commercial interests in the region make coastal zone management slow, difficult and usually ineffective.”
Clearly, action must start at the local level. One heartening example is the little island of Bonaire off the Venezuelan coast (see Going Green, November/December 1997). In addition to adopting some of the first restrictions regarding discharge of ballast water into its harbors (this must happen at least 12 miles out), Bonaire has banned anchoring around its coral reefs and adopted a series of strict rules for divers and tourists.
Faced with collapsing fisheries, residents of a Philippine village called Bindoy formed a group of volunteer Sea Watchers in the late 1980s. By 1993 the group planted more than 100,000 mangrove trees and had sunk more than 1,000 artificial reefs made of bamboo, tires, or concrete.
If Bonaire and Bindoy can do it, why is the United Nations Environment Program’s plan for “Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Activities” moving so slowly? Solving the crisis in our oceans will obviously take a coordinated worldwide effort, but the bright promise of the 1992 Rio conference is not being fulfilled. The oceans know no borders, and cooperation between nations (now reaching new lows) is essential if the negative trends are to be reversed. Otherwise, the evocative words of Rachel Carson about the magical place where land meets sea will soon be but a distant memory, with the gravest of consequences for all of us.
SIDEBAR The Grim Reapers
DICK RUSSELL is the author of the upcoming book Black Genius and the American Experience (Carroll and Graf).