Ocean Under Threat

Posted by: David Schwedel on Friday, November 13, 2015


It should be concerning to us that less than 10 percent of all large fish species are what remain in our oceans compared to just a few decades ago.  From tuna, swordfish, marlin, to grouper and more, the impact of commercial fishing has raped the ocean of her stock.  Left unabated we will have next to nothing.  In fact, most local species that once were plentiful in South Florida to the Keys have been under so much pressure that we just take it for granted that a species once so common, such as the octopus, is now just a “rare sighting”.  In fact today, Great White sharks are now seen more often than an octopus in local waters.

As an active freediver I am fortunate to be able to live next to America’s only barrier reef system.  40 years ago I can remember jumping into almost any canal on Miami Beach, and the sea walls there were living coral reefs.  Unusually, clear water, teaming with life with everything from lobster to sea horses to sea fans.  Today, those same canals are an imagery from a dystopian tale; barren with little to no life, with dark mud and rocks at the bottom.  Our inland waterways are a microcosm of what is going on in our local bays and surrounding ocean areas.

As a child growing up on Miami Beach we spent many a day walking the seashore collecting shells.  The sand back then consisted completely of tiny crushed ocean shell remnants.  The colors were vibrant pinks, whites, balanced out with a myriad assortment of coffee cream pieces.  Then the Army Corps of Engineers showed up, and launched a massive dredging operation offshore. 

This undertaking pumped millions of tons of “ocean bottom”, onto the shoreline to extend the beach further out into the ocean, and it ran up the coastline for miles and miles.  Citizens were told then that this work was needed as the result of naturally occurring shore erosion.  The result was the devastation of more than 50% of our coral reefs, and no tally was taken on the impact to other marine life.  Our beaches now mostly consist of fine sands, and are compacted down to the consistency of cement slabs.  I see more kids picking up plastic on the shoreline, than seashells.

Today more than 85% of our South Florida coral reef system has been eliminated due to pollution, human impact, and climate change.  At one point, we had three major reef lines that ran parallel to the shoreline.  These reefs were the deep, middle, and shallow reef.  In the Government’s view dredging back then made perfect sense. 

After all, we have to “protect our coastline, and our tourism industry”.  In fact, they continue the same practice today where they recently completed dredging to deepen the Port of Miami to add two more feet of depth.  Now, the same thing is getting ready to start in Ft. Lauderdale.

Add to this impact that Miami Dade County continues to be one of the few remaining Counties in the State of Florida that “treats” its municipal waste with a chemical process rendering it “safe”, and then proceeds to pump this sewage stew into our local ocean.  Our economy relies on tourism, so naturally we invite tourists throughout the world to come swim in our “poop” – well technically speaking, our “chemically treated poop”.

The fact is that Southeast Florida has five ocean outfall pipes that pump 300 million gallons per day of “treated” sewage into our coastal waters.  Back in 2008, then Governor Charlie Christ signed into law legislation ending the practice of dumping “inadequately treated sewage”.  After the recession, funding dried up, and politicians from Miami, in particular Senator Miguel Diaz de la Portilla introduced bill SB 796 which delayed the implementation, and allowed the dumping of sewage until 2030. 

A similar undertaking was filed in a House Bill (HB 613) by Representative Carlos Trujillo from Miami.   The political argument in a 2009-2012 post recessionary environment won – why spend money we don’t have?   Since then, nothing has been done. 

Technologies exist today to recycle this type of “treated” effluent for better use.  Many other Florida counties use this recycled material for irrigation where it is well used.  Here we are again with a “booming real estate economy” in South Florida.  It is time to fix this problem while we have the resources to do so. 

The fact is many people do not really care. I am sure we all know that handful of Miami  fisherman who come home in their boats with fish catch beyond the regulatory limits – they boast of the “great haul”, and “how many mahi-mahi they caught”.  So much fish in fact that they could not eat it all in a period of months.  So, they give away what they can, eat, and then freeze the rest. 

Then you have the impact of thermal expansion due to climate change, and invasive species issues, such as lionfish.  All of this has a major impact on our sea life.  But if you ask those same fisherman to consider creating a sea life preserve area, or a moratorium on fishing for a period of time to allow the fish stocks to recover, they tell you that it is “taking away their right to a natural resource”.  A nearly depleted resource at best.

Our neighbors to the east, the Islands of the Bahamas, where there was once a treasure trove of sea life (in some protected smaller areas it most definitely still is);  fishing there was akin to throwing your rod in the water nearly anywhere, and the fish were there.  As a spearfisherman I enjoy freediving and catching my fair share of grouper, hog snapper, lobster, and more.  The truth is, I have seen the change over the decades, the fish stocks are smaller and smaller.  The lionfish count is higher and higher. 

Divers who once fished the Bimini Islands, those small islands nearest to Miami, today must travel another 30 – 85 miles or more to get to “decent fishing areas”.  Those who are in the know, know that Bimini is relatively speaking, “fished out”.  Just that comment alone should give anyone who is an avid angler a pause.  Where one could usually find large species of fish in shallow water (depths up to 30 feet), now freedivers have to look at depths of 35’ or deeper to find large fish – if they are there at all.  I remember being able to fill up our cooler in less than 1 ½ hours with fish about 10-12 years ago.  Today, when we spearfish anywhere from the Gingerbreads to as far south as the Tongue of the Ocean near the Exumas, it now takes us at least 3-4 hours to find fish stock worthy to catch.

There are solutions to all of these problems.  The problem is that people have short-term memory, delayed gratification, and we have no responsible political stewardship.  Unfortunately, we live in a world where the Governor of the State of Florida, Rick Scott, banned the use of the term “climate change” amongst his various agencies.  Seriously?  A more than 500,000 year track record on climate change, and then a huge spike from the time of the industrial revolution until today – instead of being incensed, people like Mr. Scott are emboldened by their ignorance.

The fact is there are fixes to most of these issues.  After all, Lionfish is very tasty, and that’s not a bad way to get started!  New technologies will make a difference, and ultimately human indifference must change for the better.

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