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Marine Sanctuary's Wrong Science Accelerated Florida's Coral Reef Destruction

May 10, 2015 - 6:00pm

At exactly the time I should have been paying the closest attention, Florida was suffering probably the biggest environmental disaster in its history. It happened on my watch but I wasn't watching.

During the early 1990s through 1995, 38 percent of the once-abundant living coral in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary had died.



It was what marine biologist Michael J. Risk of McMaster University called "regional mass extinction" and what his colleague Brian Lapointe from Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute called "one of the worst environmental disasters in modern history."


I'm ashamed of my ignorance. I was managing editor of The Stuart News/Port St. Lucie News at the time. In 1994 I was president of the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. I had what I think was a special responsibility to know and report such a cataclysmic event.

But scientists are telling me now, unless I'd been living in the Keys, or unless I was a diver and had seen the "before and after," I would never have known anyway. Management at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary kept it under wraps, consistently denying there was a water quality problem in the Keys.

The National Marine Sanctuary was calling for fresh water to be shipped down canals operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and sent into Florida Bay. They still are to this day, and that's my interest in this now. Sanctuary scientists, who long ago reeled in the Everglades Foundation founders as their disciples, continue to ignore the connection between nitrogen and phosphorus -- deadly to coral in combination because they fertilize algae and invite red tides.

Billy Causey isthe southeast regional director for the National Marine Sanctuary. Causey is theman most responsible for keeping the faulty hypothesis alive and well. Scary when you consider he failed to earn his doctorate, so in 2006 the University of South Florida gave him an honorary one anyway. "Oh, he likes to be called Doctor," one of his staff told me. "We have to call him Doctor."

has been the lead National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration(NOAA) official in the development of the management plan for the Keys sanctuary -- and the Keys sanctuaryis the third largest marine protected area in the United States. I'm not sure if Causey's long tenure is more a statement about NOAA -- an arm of the U.S. Department of Commerce -- or about the sanctuary itself.

In an earlier interview, Lapointe told me, "They (sanctuary scientists) kept saying we need more fresh water from the Everglades. Their theory was hypersalinity -- too much salt water -- was killing the reefs. The fact is -- all the research shows -- what we needed wasn't fresh water, it was clean water."

Lapointe and a handful of his colleagues insisted the algae blooms could be explained by the bay's Petrie dish effect, that you always get your biggest growth response when you add nitrogen and phosphorous together. It's eutrophication, or overenrichment by nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorous and silica -- the chemicals that come from sewage outfalls, industrial and agricultural runoff -- that create the algae.

If you want to see proof, look at the Shark River flows and nitrogen-loading data from Lapointe's studies (illustration below). What you'll see isramped up water flows between 1991 and 1995. Why did that happen? Because the South Florida Water Management District bought into the flawed "hypersalinity" hypothesis by increasing water deliveries to Shark River and Taylor Slough. That took Florida Bay and the Keys over a eutrophication "tipping point."

The Keys already had a major problem with sewage -- thousands of cesspits, 30,000 septic tanks, and 1,200 shallow injection wells and nearshore impacts, but these massive flows from the mainland, both agricultural and urban nutrients, triggered the explosive regional water quality deterioration. That manifested itself in algal blooms in Florida Bay and loss of coral in downstream waters of the Keys.

At the peak of the flows in 1995, a major toxic red tide developed on the Gulf side of the Keys, killing off an enormous amount of wildlife. Over the next four years, as I mentioned earlier, 38 percent of the living coral died in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Nice work, Causey and scientists Jay Zieman and Ron Jones.

"It's the saddest thing when you love something," Don DeMaria told me. "It's like watching a dear friend die."

DeMaria, who owns Sea Samples, a company that collects samples for analysis, previously served on a sanctuary advisory board. He said the algae is no less a problem now than it was in the '90s -- in fact, it's back just off Big Pine, 3 feet deep in mid-channel and he isn't entirely sure sanctuary management sees a problem.

"I don't understand what they're doing," he told me. "I reported a sponge die-off off Ramrod Key last week, but NOAA hasn't weighed in yet.

"What is the sanctuary preserving? They allow some commercial fishermen with nets to come in and, for instance, take ballyhoo. These are supposed to be preservation areas. They're not preservation areas, they're special privilege areas."

DeMaria concluded, "Fresh water isn't the answer, it's only going to accelerate the coral death. You can't clean nitrogen out of water like you can phosphorus. That's the truth of it."

Commercial fisherman Mike Laucinda, who has been fishing off the Keys since 1969, said the water was pristine and clear until about 1974 and has been worsening ever since. "Within the last six or seven years a new algae has been showing up," he told me. "It pulls my trap lines, it smothers everything, I can't pull it off, I have to cut it. It's about 5 feet deep on the bottom in 20-25 feet of water in Hobbs Channel."

DeMaria said, "The chamber of commerce talks about 'the emerald green water of the Florida Keys.' ... Well, in the old days they talked about it as it should be, 'crystal clear and blue.'"

Meanwhile, I still feel responsible for not knowing the crisis afoot in Florida Bay in 1994 and 1995, failing to sound the alarm. The clearly stated mission of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Act of 1990 is simple: Protect living coral. Instead, wrong science -- or should I say, bad science by the wrong scientists -- killed it.

Reach Nancy Smith at or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith

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