Report card: Coastlines in trouble      

U.S. regions average fair to poor, EPA and others conclude           

            

          

Seen from a NASA satellite, the Mississippi River delta dumps fertlizers and manure from farms miles upstream into the Gulf of Mexico. The effluents contribute to the creation in summer of a "dead zone" as large as 7,000 square miles.  

 

          

By Miguel Llanos

MSNBC        

                  April 1 —  A landmark report card on the nation’s coastlines says they are deteriorating to the point that they can no longer fully support marine life or human activity. Overall, the report rates coastal conditions as fair to poor. The Gulf of Mexico area — with its vast “dead zone” — fared worst in the first-ever nationwide analysis by the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies.           

                   

                   

 

 

                                   

         ‘One of our greatest needs for the 21st century is a coordinated comprehensive, and integrated coastal monitoring program.’

   NATIONAL COASTAL CONDITION REPORT

   

                         “FOR THE first time, researchers can compare the conditions of estuaries across the country,” according to a fact sheet issued along with the report.

       Those conditions were described as “less than ideal.” Overall, the report said, coastal waters in the continental United States are in fair to poor condition, and 44 percent of U.S. estuary areas can’t fully support human activities or marine life.

       The study defined an impaired body of water as one that does not fully support its designated use, such as recreation and swimming, a source of drinking water or habitat for aquatic life.

       The Gulf of Mexico fared worst, in large part due to a long-known “dead zone” — an area that is uninhabitable in summer months due to a lack of oxygen. The area has nearly doubled in the last decade, and now includes as much as 7,000 square miles of the Gulf, one of the nation’s most productive and valuable fishing grounds.

 

A landmark comparison of coastlines in the continental United States found conditions that averaged just fair to poor.

     The report by EPA and other federal agencies looked at seven indicators in the Northeast, Southeast, Gulf of Mexico, West Coast and Great Lakes.

 

NORTHEAST

Water Clarity           5          Dissolved Oxygen  4

Coastal WetlandLoss        2          ContaminatedSediments 1

Benthos        1          Fish TissueContaminants 1

EutrophicCondition 1          Overall           2.1

 

 

 

SOUTH EAST

Water Clarity           4          Dissolved Oxygen  5

Coastal WetlandLoss        2          ContaminatedSediments 3

Benthos        2          Fish TissueContaminants 5

EutrophicCondition 4          Overall           3.6

 

GULF OF MEXICO

Water Clarity           3          Dissolved Oxygen  5C

Coastal WetlandLoss        1          ContaminatedSediments 1

Benthos        1          Fish TissueContaminants 1

EutrophicCondition 1          Overall           1.9

 

 

WEST

Water Clarity           5          Dissolved Oxygen  5

Coastal WetlandLoss        1          ContaminatedSediments 1

Benthos        3          Fish TissueContaminants 3

EutrophicCondition 1          Overall           2.7

 

 

GREAT LAKES

Water Clarity           5          Dissolved Oxygen  4

Coastal WetlandLoss        1          ContaminatedSediments 1

Benthos        1          Fish TissueContaminants 1

EutrophicCondition __d     Overall           2.2

 

 

UNITED STATESb

Water Clarity           4.3      Dissolved Oxygen  4.5

Coastal WetlandLoss        1.4      ContaminatedSediments 1.3

Benthos        1.4      Fish TissueContaminants 1.9

EutrophicCondition 1.7      Overall           2.4

 

Water clarity: The amount of light that gets through water.

Dissolved oxygen: The amount of oxygen in coastal waters.

Coastal wetlands: Areas critical for fish and birds; they also filter waste, improving water quality.

Sediment contaminants: The amount of contamination in seafloor sediment.

Benthic condition: The status of worms, clams and crustaceans that live on coastal seafloors, playing a key role in maintaining sediment and water quality. These are known as benthos, or benthic macroinvertebrates.

Fish contaminants: The chemicals absorbed by fish and which tend to remain in tissue and build up over time.

Eutrophic condition: The amount of nitrogen and phosphorus in coastal waters. When levels of these farm byproducts are high, excessive algae growth occurs, absorbing oxygen and choking marine life.


a Rating scores are based on a 5-point system where 1 is poor and 5 is good.


b U.S. score is based on an areally weighted mean of regional scores.


c Rating score does not include the impact of the hypoxic zone in offshore Gulf of Mexico waters.


d No eutrophication survey results are available for the Great Lakes.


Rating Scores a by Indicator and Region


Source: National Coastal Conditions Report


       The causes of the expanding dead zone appear tied to farm and livestock runoff from the Mississippi River; physical changes to the river, such as dredging and loss of natural wetlands and vegetation along the banks; and the interaction of the river’s freshwater with the Gulf’s saltwater.


       



‘MUCH WORK STILL TO DO’    

The EPA said the findings provided it with a baseline for action.

       “It took decades for the coasts to get this way and though progress has been made, there is much work still to do,” Robert Wayland, director of the EPA’s Office of Wetlands, Oceans & Watersheds, said in a statement.

       “Virtually, the whole landscape of the United States drains into the coasts,” he said. “This report emphasizes the ecological and economical importance of these areas. We need to encourage efforts to protect the coasts by emphasizing watershed protection, restoring habitats, and reducing ... pollution.”

       The findings echo a report last year by the independent Pew Oceans Commission, which cited runoff from farms and cities as a major problem.

       “It’s generalized runoff from surface streets and agricultural areas that’s captured in watersheds and sent down to our coastal waters,” said Kathy Sullivan, a commission member and a past chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

       

SUMMARY OF FINDINGS

       The new report rated estuaries in five regions: the Northeast, Southeast, Gulf of Mexico, West Coast and Great Lakes. Alaska and Hawaii were not included, the study said, due to a lack of quality data.

       The study graded areas on seven factors as well as their overall ecological condition. Key findings:

 

 Overall: Northeastern estuaries, the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes are in fair to poor ecological condition, while southeastern and West Coast estuaries were rated fair.

 

 Water clarity: Rated good in West Coast and northeastern estuaries, but only fair in the Gulf of Mexico, southeastern estuaries and the Great Lakes. Clarity was based on how much light gets through water.

 

 Dissolved oxygen: The amount of oxygen in coastal waters was described as generally good.

 

 Coastal wetlands loss: The Gulf of Mexico, West Coast and Great Lakes rated poor, and the Southeast and Northeast fared only slightly better. Wetlands are critical for fish and birds, and they also filter waste, improving water quality.

 

 Sediment contaminants: Conditions along coastal floors were found to be generally poor. Only the Southeast was rated fair.

 

 Benthic condition: The worms, clams and crustaceans that live on coastal seafloors are known as benthos and play a key role in maintaining sediment and water quality. Conditions were poor in the Northeast, Gulf of Mexico and Great Lakes.

 

 Fish contaminants: Chemicals absorbed by fish tend to remain in tissue and build up over time. The Northeast, Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes were rated poor. Fish consumption advisories exist throughout the Gulf of Mexico and northeastern coastal areas, the report noted, although these advisories largely pertain to offshore species such as king mackerel.

 

 Eutrophic condition: This pertains to levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, two byproducts from farms. When levels are too high, excessive algae growth occurs, absorbing oxygen and choking marine life. The report found eutrophication is increasing throughout much of the United States. Conditions are poor in the Gulf of Mexico, West Coast and Northeast.        

                 

 

Global climate change

Should Earth continue its warming pattern, scientists fear shore and habitat erosion, increased salinity of estuaries and freshwater aquifers, altered tidal ranges in rivers and bays, changes in sediments and nutrient transport, a change in patterns of chemical and microbial contamination in coastal areas, and increased coastal flooding. Ecosystems particularly at risk include saltwater marshes, mangrove ecosystems, coastal wetlands, coral reefs, coral atolls, and river deltas.

 

Invasion of exotic speciesBoth man and nature sometimes add a species to an area where it’s not native. The danger is that this can bring new disease organisms that the native species are not equipped to defend against. Man’s impact often comes via the exchange of ballast water in ships, which can dump marine organisms into new areas. This has been implicated in outbreaks of red-tide in Australia; the invasion of the Black Sea by the American comb jellyfish with disastrous effects on plankton biomass and the anchovy fishery; and the invasion of the Great Lakes by Eurasian zebra and quagga mussels that have caused great economic damage in inland waterways.

 

Alteration of physical habitatAccording to the United Nations, more than half of the world’s population lives within 40 miles of the shoreline and this could rise to 75 percent by the year 2020. And as more people live close to shorelines, that means more erosion, destruction and pollution of habitat used by many ocean species. In the United States and worldwide, coastal salt marshes have been destroyed by dredging and filling, mangroves have been removed for shrimp aquaculture, coastal development has altered natural patterns of erosion and sedimentation, and mining and dredging have directly altered habitats for marine species.

 

Chemical pollution and eutrophicationMore than 75 percent of ocean pollution actually comes from sources on land. These might be factories, farms or even homes hundreds of miles inland, which pollute either into the air or into rivers that run into the sea. The pollution can increase mortality rates, decrease growth, impair reproduction and genetically mutate ocean species. It is also believed to contribute to the increase in certain marine algae that can kill various marine organisms and cause illness and even death in humans who consume contaminated seafood.

 

Fisheries’ operationsOne study found that, in the past two decades, the world’s fishing nations have so excessively increased their efforts that global fishing capacity in the traditional fisheries is estimated to be 30 percent greater than required to take the world catch. In the United States, it has been estimated that about one-third of all the fisheries for which sufficient data exist are overfished.

 

       

COASTAL POLICIES

       In a statement accompanying the report, the EPA cited several initiatives to improve coastal areas:

 President Bush’s budget proposes $21 million in new funding for watershed protection.

 The EPA has given grants to states to address bacterial contamination of bathing beaches.

 A new Estuary Habitat Restoration Council aims to restore estuaries.

 Federal agencies, states and tribes are working on an action plan to address the Gulf of Mexico’s “dead zone.”

 The EPA is issuing technical guidance to improve the design and operation of septic systems to reduce bacterial contamination in coastal waters.

       Those steps, however, fall short of a grander vision called for in the report.

       “One of our greatest needs for the 21st century,” the report concluded, “is a coordinated comprehensive and integrated coastal monitoring program that examines all aspects” of coastal conditions.

       Ted Morton, policy director for the American Oceans Campaign, agreed that more could be done. “We’ve done a very poor job of addressing pollution that comes from these more diverse sources” like farms and city streets.

       Morton wants to see more tax dollars go to build ponds and streamside buffers that retain the pollutants from runoff, and points to Maryland as being a state leader on that front.

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 Sullivan expected that a Pew Oceans Commission report, due out later this year, would raise the bar even higher, calling for policymakers to develop a new mindset “about this link between our lands and our coastal areas.”

       A former astronaut and the first American woman to walk in space, Sullivan saw that link firsthand from space. “We humans live on an ocean plant,” she said, “and we depend intimately on the heart beat and healthy functioning of our ocean ecosystem.”

       The EPA report was developed in collaboration with NOAA, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

       The full National Coastal Condition Report is online at epa.gov/owow/oceans/nccr.

       

The United States manages some 900 types of fish and shellfish in its waters. Of those, the status of 600 is described as unknown. In 2000, overfishing was estimated to affect 72 types while 92 were classified as overfished.

Overfishing occurs when fish are harvested faster than they can replenish their population. A stock is overfished when it falls below a set percentage of its population.

 

New England Fishery Management Council

 

Overfished: Atlantic salmon; Atlantic halibut; haddock; monkfish; spiny dogfish; yellowtail flounder (Southern New England, Mid-Atlantic); silver hake (Southern Georges Bank, Mid-Atlantic); red hake (Southern Georges Bank, Mid-Atlantic); ocean pou

 

Overfishing: American plaice; Atlantic halibut; spiny dogfish; monkfish; sea scallop (Mid-Atlantic); cod (Gulf of Maine); yellowtail flounder (Cape Cod, Mid-Atlantic); white hake; silver hake

 

Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council

 

Overfished: Spiny dogfish; monkfish; scup; summer flounder; black sea bass; bluefish (except Gulf of Mexico); tilefish

 

Overfishing: Spiny dogfish; monkfish; scup; summer flounder; black sea bass; bluefish (except Gulf of Mexico); loligo squid; tilefish

 

South Atlantic Fishery Management Council

 

Overfished: Red porgy; jewfish; Nassau grouper; vermillion snapper; gag; red snapper; speckeled hind; snowy grouper; Warsaw grouper; golden tilefish; yellowtail snapper; red grouper; black grouper; red drum; king mackerel (Gulf)

 

Overfishing: Vermillion snapper; red porgy; gag; red snapper; speckled hind; snowy grouper; Warsaw grouper; golden tilefish; yellowtail snapper; red grouper; black grouper; black sea bass; red drum

 

Atlantic States Fisheries Management Commission -- a 15 state organization covering coastal waters.

 

Overfished: Atlantic croaker; Atlantic sturgeon

 

Overfishing: American lobster; Atlantic croaker; tautog

 

Caribbean Fisheries Management Commission

 

Overfished: Nassau grouper; jewfish; queen conch

 

Overfishing: Queen conch

 

Gulf Fisheries Management Commission

 

Overfished: Red grouper; king mackerel (Gulf); red snapper; Nassau grouper, jewfish; red drum

 

Overfishing: Red grouper; gag; vermillion snapper; red snapper

 

Migratory species, all regions

 

 Overfished: Blue marlin (North Atlantic); white marlin (North Atlantic); sailfish (West Atlantic); bigeye tuna (Atlantic); albacore (North Atlantic); bluefin tuna (West Atlantic); swordfish (North Atlantic); sandbar shark; blacktip shark; dusky shark; spinner shark; silky shark; bull shark; bignose shark; narrowtooth shark; Galapagos shark; night shark; Caribbean reef shark; tiger shark; lemon shark; sand tiger shark; bigeye sand tiger shark; nurse shark; scalloped hammerhead shark; great hammerhead shark; smooth hammerhead shark; whale shark; basking shark; white shark

 

Overfishing: Blue marlin (North Atlantic); white marlin (North Atlantic); sailfish (West Atlantic); bigeye tuna (Atlantic); albacore (North Atlantic); bluefin tuna (West Atlantic); swordfish (North Atlantic); sandbar shark; blacktip shark; dusky shark; spinner shark; silky shark; bull shark; bignose shark; narrowtooth shark; Galapagos shark; night shark; Caribbean reef shark; tiger shark; lemon shark; sand tiger shark; bigeye sand tiger shark; nurse shark; scalloped hammerhead shark; great hammerhead shark; smooth hammerhead shark; whale shark; basking shark; white shark

 

North Pacific Fishery Management Council

 

Overfished: Blue king crab (Saint Matthews Island); tanner crab (Bering Sea)

 

Pacific Management Commission

 

Overfished: Red grouper; king mackerel (Gulf); red snapper; Nassau grouper, jewfish; red drum

 

Overfishing: Darkblotched rockfish; silvergrey rockfish; yelloweye rockfish

 

West Pacific Management Commission

 

Overfished: Pelagic armorhead