Tag Archives: ocean

Newest Climate Threat: The Ocean is Losing Oxygen

Image by NASA

Image by NASA

Shall we call this the “climate threat of the day?” With new evidence arriving daily of alarming trends and discoveries of previously unconfirmed effects from a changing climate, and a more broadly changing planet, it can be hard to keep up. Someone needs to publish a daily calendar with a fill-in-the-blank statement: “The thing that scares me the most today about planetary change is ____________________.”

For example:

The thing that scares me the most today about planetary change is ocean deoxygenation.

What is that? In essence, science has proven, just this week, that the global ocean has less oxygen today than in recent decades. The loss is greater than 2%, according to a new article in Nature by lead author Sunke Schmidtko. The trend has been predicted and demonstrated on local scales, but this composite study is the first to quantify it on a global scale.

The ocean is slowly suffocating, due to changes caused by us. If that much harm could happen within 50 years, I shudder to think what could happen within 500 years.

Wikipedia will need to update its definition of ocean deoxygenation, because it’s now an established observation, instead of a suggestion. [We also have a more immediate need of a sad Planet Ocean emoji. Here’s my sideways text-only version  (:<)  ]

Read more about this study in a Washington Post article by Chris Mooney that states: “The new study underscores once again that some of the most profound consequences of climate change are occurring in the oceans, rather than on land.”

How can swimming in the ocean help a park?

It can’t, but swimmers can.

And swimmers know non-swimmers, who can do even more.

This week I’ve been blogging about Biscayne National Park in preparation for a fundraising and awareness-raising effort that centers around a marathon swim as the hook. Hooked yet? It worked last June when I swam the 12.5 miles around Key West solo: I dedicated it to the climate change activism of 350 South Florida, which I serve as president, and people pulled out their wallets. I was somewhat surprised at how easy it was (the fundraising, not the swim!).

Looking at one of several structures in Stiltsville, within the park.

Looking at one of several structures in Stiltsville, within the park.

Blog posts review some of the reasons why Biscayne National Park needs help:
Jan Brady syndrome
Big and shallow
Nuclear expansion
Disappearing ecosystems

Another reason is to celebrate what the park has and has accomplished. Next year, 2016, is the centennial of the national park system, and Biscayne National Park turns 50 in a couple years. So creating a swim event now and repeating it annually would hit several landmarks and help make “sea”-marks.

Swimmers Too Dry

As a lifelong swimmer and more recent environmentalist, I have been disappointed with the lack of engagement by competitive swimmers with conservation. Can you name one swimmer, or one swimming event, that champions the environment?

Attempts have been feeble. The Olympic champion Aaron Peirsol, a spokesperson for Oceana, tried to use the open water Race for the Oceans as a platform, but it fizzled.

When I competed in 2013 in the St. Croix Coral Reef Swim, which claims to support reef conservation, I saw no efforts to educate swimmers about the highly degraded reef system we swam over.

Water rules.

Water rules.

In the 2014 Swim Around Key West, I scored a small victory by getting samples of reef-safe sunscreen included in the goodie bags. But I couldn’t convince the island’s Reef Relief organization to get invovled.

The connection of swimmers to water is so obvious that it makes me wonder: are we afraid to know what we’re swimming in? Or does swimming in chlorinated pools make us numb to natural aquatic ecosystems?

I think the problem with swimmers is that nobody has asked them to get more involved. So I’m asking. I want to try, where I live, to defend an amazing national treasure. Swim it to save it.

Who’s ready to join me?

More problems, less money in Biscayne

With all the world’s problems, who cares about a safe and secure national park?

Plenty of people do, and in this age of political divisiveness, we could all use something that everyone agrees on. National parks, like Everglades and Biscayne, make Floridians and Americans proud, and the possibility of losing them would certainly rally people around a worthy cause.

To do something now, contribute to my campaign to Swim for Biscayne National Park, at http://www.gofundme.com/Biscayne.

In fact, we are losing these two parks. Almost all of the land in both parks will be underwater within a few decades, due to rising seas, and strong hurricanes could be devastating in the shorter term. Then there’s ocean acidification.

Reef Rot

Have you seen this sign? Most visitors don't, because they arrive by boat.

Have you seen this sign? Most visitors don’t, because they arrive by boat.

The coral reefs within Biscayne National Park, part of the extensive Florida Reef system, face 15 rounds of punches from all angles. The changing chemistry of the sea, cause by the absorption of too much carbon dioxide from pollution, puts a slow chokehold on animals such as corals. It will take decades to determine, but acidification could prove to be the strongest force of extinction ever seen by humans.

This year, if predictions about El Nino come true, all coral reefs could be dealing with a devastating warming event. These events only need a few abnormally warm weeks to turn living corals into skeletons. The last major bleaching event in Florida was nearly a decade ago, and the likelihood of the next one keeps rising. If not this year, definitely plan on next year for more coral bleaching and disease. And it will keep getting worse, with no relief from climate change in sight.

Boating in Mud

Beautiful water hides the scars underneath, from boats hitting the shallows.

Beautiful water hides the scars underneath, caused by boats hitting the shallows.

Clueless boaters are a daily threat to Biscayne National Park. Propellers rip through the shallow seagrass and leave scars that are common sights throughout the park.

Fishers leave behind plenty of hooks and line, the most common type of marine debris in the park. When I was snorkeling there in 2013, I came across a large net lodged in a reef. It was too difficult to dislodge, but the authorities were notified.

Just this month, an enormous 6,000 pound plastic pipe washed up on Elliott Key. What a nightmare.

Just as litter accumulates, natural things decrease. Intensive fishing creates ecosystem imbalances by removing large numbers of creatures. For years, Biscayne National Park has been fighting to create zones closed to fishing, but local politicians and their fishing buddies won’t have it.

Money is Tight

You would be wrong to assume that a national park prevents hunting (such as fishing) and that is has plenty of money to operate. The budget for Biscayne National Park is around $4 million annually to fund all its programs and upkeep, about 40 employees, and more than 500,000 visitors. Although it has no entrance fee, Biscayne National Park would only need to charge $8 per visitor to cover its entire budget. Without such fees, it relies on taxes and other sources of income that may prove unreliable.

The park isn’t going anywhere today, but at the same time, its future and its prosperity are not guaranteed. Little Orphan Biscayne needs people to care for it as much as they care about the Everglades. Where are the billions of dollars for restoration of the Florida Reef? Where are the laws to prevent boaters and fishers from hacking the ecosystem to pieces?

Swimmers, stand up and take stock of Biscayne National Park. Maybe our strokes could bring new life and needed attention to this underwater treasure.

Big bay, small swimmers, tough decisions

Where should we go?

Even if you don’t swim, you can help me figure out the best place to hold an official marathon swim in Biscayne National Park, the underwater jewel just south of Miami. For a couple of years I’ve been ruminating about The Swim for Biscayne National Park, and now it’s morphed into a crowdfunding idea (http://www.gofundme.com/Biscayne). The swim’s main intention is to enlighten locals about the park’s existence, because no one will care if they don’t know it’s there.

I would love a large grant from one of the donors to the South Florida National Parks Trust, but I haven’t approached most of them, because I haven’t succeeded in drumming up much enthusiasm within my circle of influence. I’m even reluctant to talk about it, because I can’t afford to do much on my own, and I don’t have a boat to explore the park. Obviously, I could use a little boost, whether in word in in dollar.

Biscayne National Park is the large blue outline, just east of Miami (Florida Ocean Alliance 2013)

Biscayne National Park is outlined as a large block attached to Miami-Dade County. (Map from Florida Ocean Alliance 2013)

 

 

Swimming in Circles

As for the swim’s course, considering that you can fish nearly anywhere, and take your boat nearly anywhere, it’s safe to assume that you can swim nearly anywhere in Biscayne National Park.

Almost. A triangle in the Atlantic, directly east of Elliott Key, is off-limits to everything expect drift fishing and trolling. The Legare Anchorage holds an ancient British shipwreck, the HMS Foley, that sank in 1748.

Never mind, as there are plenty of other wrecks in the park’s Maritime Heritage Trail, and plenty of space to float around.

BISCmap1

The border of Biscayne National Park is less than a mile from Miami. (credit: “BISCmap1” by Mgreason, Public Domain, Wikipedia)

From the island of Key Biscayne near Miami, the park border lies less than half a mile from Bill Baggs State Park. Less than two miles away is historic Stiltsville, one of the most arresting sights in Florida. A group of wrecks surround the houses on stilts, and that loop would makes for a very cool, four-mile round trip swim. It is unknown if anyone has attempted this swim, and logistically it’s the easiest one to attempt. We could pull that crew together (kayaks and swimmers) in no time and at minimal cost.

Despite its huge size, most of Biscayne National Park is less than 12 feet deep, especially within Biscayne Bay. A deeper strip runs on the Atlantic side, further out to sea, but it becomes shallow again within sight of Elliot Key. Here are dozens of beautiful, shallow coral reefs.

That’s where I would love to stage a swim, and it’s where I went snorkeling in 2013 with classmates from Florida International University studying marine protected areas. Read more about that experience in an article I wrote for National Parks Traveler. We saw endangered elkhorn corals thriving here, which essentially represents their northernmost limit. That sight alone is worth the trip.

For a self-propelled visit from an island, the closest reef to Elliott Key requires more than one mile of swimming. Most reefs are more than three miles offshore, so swimming to them and back would require quite an effort. Not impossible, but challenging, and the exact course would require some consultations with experts.

Getting to the reefs by boat is not difficult, so another option involves hopping off a boat, like the snorkelers do, and finding a pathway between the patch reefs. With the right launching point, you could hit several reefs within a one-mile trek.

On the Other Paddle

Perhaps the most media-friendly challenge would be the “escape to Miami” swim from Boca Chita Key, a popular haunt for boaters with a scenic lighthouse. Either west to the mainland or north to Key Biscayne would involve about nine miles through shallow water. Definitely do-able, and it’s unlikely that anyone has tried it.

Depending on the currents, we may want to go one direction or another. Help! The Gulf Stream is nearby and pushes north, but there must be many other currents driven by the tides, especially around the sandy, grassy area known as the Safety Valve. Viewed rom above, the tidal stripes clearly run east to west.

Well, I guess I’ll keep studying the options. It would be fun to organize an inaugural, communal swim around Stiltsville by the end of May (the 31st?) as a way to kickstart this campaign.

Visit the Park, Any Way

Even if you don’t want to get wet, definitely plan to visit Biscayne National Park soon. When arriving by boat, consider using the existing mooring buoys instead of an anchor. Most buoys are in water of about 20 feet deep.

Arriving by car involves driving through Homestead to reach the Dante Fascell Visitor Center at Convoy Point, open until 5:00 p.m. You can’t easily swim in the shallows around here, although kayaking is encouraged. There’s a boardwalk and areas for a picnic near the bay.

Not far from shore, dolphins, manatees and sea turtles are living the dream in Biscayne National Park. Join them.

Hall of Ocean Extinction

Confirming extinction in the ocean is difficult, and my researched list is here. To help you visualize that list, below are photos collected to represent each species.

Please realize that this list of 19 represents only extinctions confirmed by science, and there are likely hundreds of unrecorded extinctions. Still, it is worth seeing some of what we have lost.

1. Steller’s Sea Cow (click for funny video)

MSU V2P1a - Hydrodamalis gigas painting.png

Extinct 1768  (Wikipedia)

2. Sea Mink

3. Caribbean Monk Seal

Cms-newyorkzoologicalsociety1910.jpg

Extinct 1952  (Wikipedia)

4. Japanese Sea Lion

Zalophus japonicus.JPG

Extinct 1950s  (Wikipedia)

5. New Zealand grayling

Prototroctes oxyrhynchus.jpg

Extinct 1930s  (Wikipedia)

6.Green Wrasse

(no image found; related species shown is Anampses elegant).

Extinction 2010, assumed but "data deficient."

Extinction 2010, assumed but “data deficient”  (Wikipedia)

7. Great Auk

Keulemans-GreatAuk.jpg

Extinct 1852  (Wikipedia)

8. Labrador Duck

Labrador Ducks AMNH.jpg

Extinct 1875  (Wikipedia)

9. Large St Helena Petrel (no representative images found)

Extinct 1500s  (http://overfishing.org)

Extinct 1500s  (http://overfishing.org)

10. Small St Helena Petrel  (no representative images found)

Extinct 1500s  (http://overfishing.org)

Extinct 1500s  (http://overfishing.org)

11. Pallas’s Cormorant

ExtbPallusCormorantovw.jpg

Extinct 1950s  (Wikipedia)

12. Auckland Islands Merganser

Auckland Islands Merganser.jpg

Extinct 1910  (Wikipedia)

13. Canary Islands Oystercatcher

Canarian Oystercatcher.jpg

Extinct 1940s  (Wikipedia)

14. Eelgrass limpet

Extinction date unknown  (http://www.sydneyshellclub.net)

Extinction date unknown (http://www.sydneyshellclub.net)

15. Rocky shore limpet (no image found; related species shown is Lottia atrata)

Collisella atrata 002.jpg

Extinct 1860s  (Wikipedia)

16. Periwinkle Littoraria flammea (no image found; related species shown is Littoraria cingulata)

Littoraria cingulata 002.jpg

Extinct 1840  (Wikipedia)

17. Horn Snail (no image found; related species shown is Cerithideopsilla djadjariensis)

Kawa-ai080623.jpg

Extinct 1935  (Wikipedia)

18. Bennett’s seaweed

Vanvoorstia bennettiana.jpg

Extinct 1890s  (Wikipedia)

19. Turkish towel algae (no image found; related species shown is Gigartina serrata) 

Extinction date unknown  (http://ucjeps.berkeley.edu)

Extinction date unknown (http://ucjeps.berkeley.edu)

20. Most likely next extinction in ocean: a limpet

Represented by Diodora italica

Diodoraitalica.jpg

Survival TBD

Diodoraitalica” by Wilson44691Own work. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Florida Reef Tract gets the “special” treatment

The Sunshine State’s many exceptional natural features have made it a tourism mecca and standout in the oeuvre of postcards, but promoters may want to bury the latest description of its coral reefs. The most comprehensive report on the state of Caribbean coral reefs calls Florida’s reefs “a special case”– and not in the good way.

A promotional cartoon paints a rosy image of the world's first underwater park.

A promotional cartoon paints a rosy image of the world’s first underwater park. (http://www.fla-keys.com)

“Florida has seen a sharp decline in its coral reef in the past 40 years,” says Carl Gustaf Lundin, Director of Global Marine and Polar Programme at the IUCN, the world’s authority on extinction and publisher of the report on Caribbean reefs. “Improved management, particularly of reef fish and regulation of coastal use can help reverse this trend,” he says.

Decadal decline applies to most Caribbean reefs, but the report singles out the Florida Reef for its harshest assessment.

Florida represents the “worst-case scenario” where “intensity of human use and environmental impacts greatly exceeds that of any other region in the wider Caribbean, if not the world,” states the IUCN report, Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012. The report analyzed 35,000 reef surveys to detect patterns across the region. The report names Jamaica and the U.S. Virgin Islands, in addition to Florida, as places lacking healthy corals.

Six million people are sandwiched in between the Everglades and the Florida Reef (Florida Ocean Alliance 2013)

In southern Florida, six million people are sandwiched in between the Everglades and the Florida Reef, in red. (Florida Ocean Alliance 2013)

One trend emphasized in the report is that positive human intervention can control negative impacts. “The Gulf of Mexico has some of the worst and some of the best reefs in the Caribbean. The key determining factor for this is the way the reefs have been managed,” says Lundin.

Florida’s reefs have been managed very poorly, the report contends, and “inadequate governance and regulations have resulted in the critical endangerment of an entire coral reef ecosystem.”

Endangered Reefs, Made of Coral

Only in recent years have entire ecosystems been considered candidates for mass extinction. According to the IUCN, the wider Caribbean region of reefs qualifies as “endangered” under its new criteria for ecosystems.

In 2006, two major Caribbean corals were listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. In 2009, Florida passed the Coral Reef Protection Act, and it establishes fines for boat strikes that damage coral.

The threatened staghorn and elkhorn species are stony corals that have constructed much of the Florida Reef. The theory of reef extinction being played out in Florida and elsewhere is that if reef-building corals die out, the system dies with it. Coral reef ecosystems host the greatest concentration of species in the ocean.

In a Name

The Florida Reef contains 455 square miles of reef area and stretches across the Florida Keys, Miami, and north of Palm Beach into Martin County. This northern section along the mainland lies outside the protection of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, established in 1990.

Unlike the Everglades, its sister ecosystem on land, the system of reefs that dot the southeastern Florida coastline does not have an iconic name. Scientists call it a “tract,” but I prefer to drop that ugly term and dub it the “Florida Reef.” Even better would be the term “Great Florida Reef,” but its recent history and status are anything but great.

A timeline for the Florida Reef within the IUCN report demonstrates that the number of new protective measures has waned since the end of the twentieth century. Note that a no-take area, banning all fishing and related activities, first appeared in 2001. These no-take areas comprise six percent of the reef area in the Florida Keys.

The list below revises the report’s original timeline by removing natural disasters and including only protective measures.

Timeline of Protective Measures for the Florida Reef

(adapted from Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs)

 

1935: Dry Tortugas National Monument established by President Roosevelt

~~~

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Diana Nyad’s two nights at sea

“I could see the lights of Key West.”

Diana Nyad

Feeding time in between Cuba and the U.S. (from Diana Nyad’s Facebook).

On Labor Day 2013, September 2, Diana Nyad, age 64, walked ashore onto Florida after spending more than 50 hours and two nights swimming under her own power from Cuba. Watch these videos of her triumphant arrival.

She delivered three messages to the world, which I will simplify here:

  1. Never give up.
  2. You’re never too old.
  3. It takes a team.

I want to recognize her incredible courage and take a moment, as a swimmer myself, to think about the two nights she spent swimming in the open ocean. In complete darkness. Out there, civilization is gone. There are no lights. There are no landmarks to inspire you and keep you focused in the right direction. It is a place that swallows people in silence, and left alone there, you will die.

But she was not alone, as she pointed out in message number three. She had her team on the kayaks and boats, she had her doctor, coach, navigator, and many other crew members urging her onwards. The team had to keep the water dark to avoid attracting sharks, and Diana wore a red light on her cap to be identified. In the water, Diana was guided by a thin, red strip of LED light trailed underneath her from a mount on the main boat, creating a sort of bioluminescent mermaid’s tail, pointing “this way.” But little red lights in the middle of the ocean do not keep you safe or alive. Diana had to trust her team completely.

The sun rose after day and night one, and she had not slept. Another day passed as she kept swimming and willing herself forward, and the sun set again. Night number two. She had been awake for a period that would make most mortals delirious–and she had been swimming the entire time. She was entering the darkest night.

I cannot imagine how she felt on that second night. Her body had to be in survival mode from a technical standpoint, but one organ was even stronger than her body. Her mind.

In an interview today with CNN, Nyad said that for the final 15 hours of the swim, she could see lights in the distance. She knew it was Key West, her destination. After many hours of wishing herself towards those lights, there came a much greater light.

On day three, the sun rose.

Can you imagine how beautiful it must have been? Can you see it slowly peeling away the fear of darkness and ushering in the hope of day?

I could go on and on, gushing about the symbolic victory as well as the technical triumph of Diana Nyad’s swim. This feat was much, much more than a swimmer’s Mount Everest. It was one person’s dream that had died, gone into hibernation for more than 30 years, and then arose again. It was a foolish, fool’s pursuit of a gold medal in history, in life. It was impossible.

Until now. Diana Nyad proved a lesson that seems to be hitting me over the head lately. Everything is possible.