Key West coral enthusiasts worried about oil spill damaging underwater treasure
Key West coral enthusiasts worried about oil ...
KEY WEST — Just off Key West is a treasure trove, but it’s not the X-marks-the-spot kind of treasure.
Coral reefs off the Keys provide diverse and important habitat for hundreds of thousands of marine species, and one of those reefs is America’s only great barrier reef – the third largest in the world.
The reefs are already at risk from other threats, so with oil still spewing into the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon spill, scientists, community members and business owners are worried.
Reefs have been declining at an alarming rate for the last 25 to 30 years, said Billy Causey, Southeast Regional Director for the National Marine Sanctuary Program, and former superintendent of the Florida Keys marine sanctuary. Reefs are affected by climate change, land-based sources of pollution, habitat loss and degradation, and overfishing.
“No only (are the reefs) diverse and important from a commercial and recreational perspective, … but (they’re) also important to tourism,” Causey said. “Our reefs are the heaviest dived reefs in the world, and they attract people from all over the world.”
On Sunday morning, about 20 people loaded scuba diving gear onto Sea Eagle, a 60-foot boat. Captain Roy Smith checked them in, asking about diving certifications and experience.
Smith, 57, a captain with Captain’s Corner dive center, has been working in the industry in the Keys for 30 years and he’s seen the dramatic changes in the health of the corals firsthand.
“Over the years it’s just degenerated, it’s just not as prolific as it used to be,” he said, standing on the dock beside his boat. “The fish life seems to be hanging in there, but the corals have degenerated.”
Smith said he’s worried about the potential impact of the oil on the reefs off Key West, and he is also concerned about how all the media attention and talk will affect his business.
“It seems to me, with this type of oil drilling situation, they’d have had their technology more in line,” he said. “If they are going to be drilling at 5,000 feet below the surface, you’d think they’d have done a better job.”
He paused for a moment.
“It’s like diving, you’ve got to expect the unexpected. They did not.”
Nearby, Dave and Heather Sanger arranged their gear in the passenger area of the Sea Eagle. The Sangers visit Key West about every six months from their home in Kansas City, Mo. – and they always go diving.
“We were upset and worried (about the oil), but we were coming if the oil was here or not,” said Heather Sanger, 39. “If it was, we’d have helped clean it up.”
On Sunday, they were looking forward to diving the Vandenberg, a ship that was sunk to form an artificial reef in May 2009. The Sangers have been diving the Vandenberg since it was placed on the sea bottom, and they’ve seen it grow.
“It’s a different world down there, it really is,” Heather Sanger said. “I love the fish and the colors.”
Live coral cover has declined by about 45 percent since 1996 at Keys sites monitored by the Coral Reef Evaluation and Monitoring Project in the Florida Key’s National Marine Sanctuary, said Rob Ruzicka, the program’s manager.
The reef evaluation project monitors about 50 sites from the upper Keys to the Dry Tortugas islands west of Key West, and there’s an average of 6 to 7 percent live coral cover at those sites, Ruzicka said.
For the last few years, live coral cover has remained relatively stable, though that doesn’t mean it has recovered since corals grow very slowly, he added. In some places live coral cover is as low as 2 to 3 percent, and at others it’s as high as 20 to 30 percent.
Major reductions in live coral cover have happened when there are major disturbances, like when there was bleaching in 1997 and 1998, and major hurricanes in 2004 and 2005, Ruzicka said.
This past winter’s cold spells had “drastic” effects on corals, and their teams have just begun to collect data on the loss of corals that resulted, Ruzicka added.
Corals that were 200 to 300 years old and perfectly healthy died during the five-day cold snap in January, said Causey.
The coral research team is currently working in the middle Keys, and in light of the oil spill, they’ve added additional monitoring to their regular routine.
Experts are predicting that if the oil reaches the Keys it’ll most likely be in the form of tar balls, which have been described as having the consistency of chewing gum. They’re less harmful than liquid oil, Causey said.
The 2,800-square-nautical-mile Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary surrounds all of the Florida Keys and includes the waters of Florida Bay, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic. It also includes the barrier reef, sea grass areas that are nurseries for fish and conch, tens of thousands of patch reefs and 1,600 miles of mangrove shorelines, Causey said.
“More than 4 million visitors spend 14 million visitor days and they spend $1.2 billion annually here in the Keys,” he said. “People come here because of the health of the coral reefs, they come here because of this very unique tropical environment.”
“Are our reefs in the Florida Keys healthy? Our coral reef community environment is a very viable system, and it’s still sustaining a huge economy for the Keys and South Florida,” Causey added.
He and everyone else in the Keys hope it will stay that way.
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SPECIAL REPORT FROM THE KEYS: Here's more from Daily News journalists Katy Bishop and Manuel Martinez as the Keys prepares for possible effects from the oil spill.
Just off Key West is a treasure trove, but it’s not the X-marks-the-spot kind of treasure. Coral reefs off the Keys provide diverse and important habitat for hundreds of thousands of marine species, and one of those reefs is America’s only great barrier reef – the third largest in the world. The reefs are already at risk from other threats, so with oil still spewing into the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon spill, scientists, community members and business owners are worried.
Reefs have been declining at an alarming rate for the last 25 to 30 years, said Billy Causey, Southeast Regional Director for the National Marine Sanctuary Program, and former superintendent of the Florida Keys marine sanctuary.
Photo by KATY TORRALBAS // Buy this photo
No imminent danger. Those three words were repeated again and again at a Key West city commission workshop Saturday morning. Experts from the Coast Guard, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and British Petroleum spoke to about 150 people. “It’s changing daily what is on the water up there,” said Capt. Pat DeQuattro, the Coast Guard Sector Key West commander. DeQuattro spoke about the Coast Guard’s plans, and how they have been preparing to respond if oil enters the Keys. The room’s wooden audience seats were nearly filled with adults and a few children at the two-hour-long meeting at Old City Hall on Greene Street in Key West. Other people sat and stood around the edges of the room.
Trash and oil just don’t mix. Volunteers gathered Saturday morning with kayaks and canoes at Little Torch Key, about 30 miles northeast of Key West, for a pre-oil shoreline cleanup. If oil washes ashore, any trash tangled in the mangroves or washed up on land becomes hazardous waste, said Chris Bergh, director of coastal and marine resilience for Nature Conservancy of Florida.
Mayonnaise, dish soap and kiddie pools might seem like unlikely weapons in a battle against oil. But soap cleans the feathers of oiled birds, mayonnaise helps wipe oil from sea turtles’ skins, and kiddie pools can house turtles that can’t swim in oil-contaminated waters. The turquoise waters off the environmentally sensitive Florida Keys are safe from oil for now, but no one knows for sure what will happen in the coming days.
Photo by MANUEL MARTINEZ // Buy this photo
The party continues on Duval Street, oil or no oil. But ask about it and people have lots of opinions – some well-articulated, and others a little slurred. Merchants are worried that news of tar balls on the beaches, even though they’re not connected to the spill, will drive tourists away, and those who love to eat, drink and be merry in Key West are worried that their favorite vacation island will suffer.