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Nancy Smith

It's Feces, Florida: Blame Poor Sanctuary Management for Death of the Reefs

May 5, 2015 - 6:00pm

I started diving in 1956, in the lakes and rivers of Southern Ontario. My first saltwater dive was in the Florida Keys in 1960. I had never seen a reef before, and was awestruck by the profusion of fish in the endless expanses of Acropora. It was breathtakingly beautiful.

I returned to the Keys from time to time over the next few decades, to lead research trips and undertake small projects. In the late 1970s, my attention shifted first to Latin America and then to Asia, and I had no occasion to return to Florida.

In 2000, I was asked to serve on a panel struck to evaluate all of the various coral reef monitoring programs that were ongoing in the Keys. So I traveled down to Key Largo and listened to a couple of days of presentations. One program stood out from all the rest: the FMRI program devised and run by such Florida stalwarts as Jim Porter, Phil Dustan, Walt Jaap and Vlad Kosmynin.

As I watched their presentation, a sense of dread set in. I thought, "What the hell happened?" They were describing disastrous declines in coral cover and coral diversity.

Way back in the day, when I first dived there in the '60s, the reefs of Florida had about 50 percent coral cover. The FMRI people described how the cover had dropped to 10 percent, in 1996, to 6 percent in 1999. (Today, coral cover is about 4 percent.)

I was appalled. I thought, we are witnessing a mass extinction. Surely this information will galvanize the powers that be to take decisive action. When the committee got together to write our report, I insisted that the phrase "regional mass extinction" be included. It was taken out before publication. I expected the recognition that monitoring had served its purpose. Monitoring is the technique that we use to identify the health of an ecosystem, and any trends in its condition. I expected that the results of that workshop would galvanize a concerted effort to identify the causes of this disaster. Nope.

During the Key Largo meeting, I kept running into Florida people who had nasty things to say about Brian Lapointe. At that time, I did not know him. I had met Brian once at a University of Miami workshop, and was certainly aware of his work -- which I considered to be first rate. I started asking these people, what have you got against Lapointe? And I never got a straight answer. (Full disclosure: over the ensuing years, I have come to know Brian as a friend. I have the utmost respect for him and his research.) Even then, 15 years ago, and new as I was to the Florida reef scene, I got the impression that the main reason local officials were against Brian's research was that he was about the only guy who was screaming about the importance of nutrients in the degradation of Florida Bay and the Florida Reef Tract. As such, he was going against a host of vested interests, and some misguided souls in the biological community.

My old friend Walt Jaap gave a presentation on the FMRI monitoring program in the Keys at the Key Largo meeting. His introductory slide had, as a background, a huge coral head. One side of this coral was covered with a bright orange mass -- my old friend Cliona delitrix, a fast-growing, eroding sponge that kills coral and eats fecal bacteria in seawater. I pointed out the importance of this, we huddled, and I got partial funding for a graduate student to study this sponge and its importance. Financial disclosure: I got field support from an FMRI contract, which I augmented with Canadian research funding. This resulted in the M.Sc. thesis of Christine Ward-Paige.

What we discovered was really depressing, and fit the story that the monitoring program was bringing out. We found that this sponge, which is a bio indicator of the presence in seawater of sewage waste (to be polite about it), was increasing in numbers as the corals were decreasing. In fact, a friend of mine who works for the state of Florida tells me that enormous red sponge colonies, meters in extent, can be seen in the passes from a light plane. The closer to human habitation, the more of this destructive sponge. There is apparently a strong link between nutrients in the water (because sewage is nutrients in the water) and reef degradation.

As a courtesy, I handed a copy of the first draft of our paper to Billy Causey, the sanctuary superintendent. I said, this is what we are planning to submit to a journal.

I am told (I have no documented proof) that Billy raised a contract almost overnight, and awarded it to a local sponge expert with the instructions that our work should be torn apart. I do not know who that person was. I would like to meet them someday, because to their everlasting credit they looked at our work and said, "Keep your money, Billy. These people are bulletproof." Papers based on Christines research came out in 2005.

Christine decided to present her work, which provided powerful evidence linking reef decline to declines in water quality, at a professional conference on the West Coast. Billy's second in command, Brian Keller, went to that conference and sat in the front row. As soon as Christine had finished her presentation, he jumped up and said, What you are saying is impossible. The sanctuary has no water quality issues." Rather a strong attack, leveled by a senior bureaucrat at a young grad student. She responded, "Well, Brian, history will show which of the two of us is correct." Which history now has conclusively shown.

A short time after our work came out, one of Jim Porter's students produced a startling revelation that one of the common coral diseases was in fact a human fecal bacterium. I thought, given the disastrous trend of the Florida corals, and the results that had linked it with land-based sources of pollution (L BSP), surely there would be a concerted effort by state and federal agencies to preserve this jewel in Florida's crown. Surely there would be a focused multidisciplinary, multiagency program designed to identify the stresses and eliminate them. Nothing really was done. Oh, there was plenty of money, but it was wasted on a scattershot approach that a cynic would say was designed to get the results management wanted. Monitoring continued as the coral continued to die. Billy Causey, the sanctuary manager for many years, received an honorary Ph.D. from the University of South Florida in the year that coral cover at Carysfort Reef dropped to 3 percent.

There were some attempts to address the problem. For some years, SEFCRI (Southeast Florida Coral Reef Initiative) had an advisory committee, on which I served. After a while, I felt that we were just window-dressing, and so I quietly resigned a few years ago. At one of our meetings, I suggested that Florida might establish a set of water quality guidelines. Reaction from some of the members was hostile, because believe it or not, there is a belief among some biologists in Florida that nutrients have no effect on reefs.

It is worth considering why so little has been done, and the jewel in Florida's crown has been allowed to die. One obvious reason, the 800-pound gorilla in the corner of the room, is that there is big money in development and zero money in conservation. But this situation is all around us, so we need to dig a little deeper.

Part of the problem, part of the reason why a concerted organized effort was never made, must lie with the scientists themselves. You will meet people who say that the problem is lack of grazing. Bring back the grazing fish, bring back Diadema (the grazing urchin) and all will be well. It may be no accident that the advice of these people parallels the desires of developers and their friends in government -- but we won't go there now.

Anyone who thinks that bringing back the grazers will bring back the reefs of Florida may as well put their dentures under the pillow at night in the hopes that the Tooth Fairy will visit. Some of us have been lucky enough to dive the spectacular reefs of Indonesia, seriously overfished now for a generation, seriously lacking in grazers -- and beautiful beyond belief. I have dived the reefs of Male, in the Maldives. Maldivians do not eat reef fish, so the reef fish community around that island remains very healthy. One can swim through the gentle fecal rain of untreated sewage, surrounded by huge schools of grazing fish, over a reef that is stone dead. Closer to home, Looe Key is a protected area with a healthy community of grazing fishes which is now totally overgrown by algae.

Michael J. Risk, Ph.D., professor emeritus at McMaster University in Canada, received his B.Sc. Honors in geology, University of Toronto, in 1962, M.Sc. in sedimentology, University of Western Ontario (1964) and Ph.D. in marine biology, University Southern California (1970). He has been honored with a number of awards for his extensive research and is recognized for his field and international research experience over the wide topic of corals.

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