Blogging for a Healthy Gulf

 

Look at this sign on the right. Does it look scary to you? I am not particularly fazed by it and yet it is an extremely important warning sign. It is telling me that there is a dangerously high level of bacteria in the water, enough to make me sick. But if I am looking forward to a day at the beach, that sign does not exactly stand out.

Of course, I could always check the website for beach advisories. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hosts a website, Beach Watch, an online directory of information about water quality at national beaches. But, there are 2 problems with this high-tech solution.

First, according to their own website, “States and local governments decide whether to open or close a beach. They report that information to EPA, but because they vary in how quickly they send it to us, we don't always have real-time reports.” How does that help me exactly?

Secondly, I have a computer with an internet connection at home but does everyone? In a 2006 study, Park Associates, a Dallas-based technology market research firm, found that “29 percent of U.S. households, or 31 million homes, do not have Internet access and do not intend to subscribe to an Internet service over the next 12 months.” Compiling information from the CIA’s world fact book, Neilson/NetRatings, and Computer Industry Almanac, ClickZ states “home web use continues to skew toward more affluent, younger and educated demographics. Both computer ownership and web use are lower in households comprised of seniors, among blacks and Hispanics and among households comprised of people with less than a high school education. Conversely, nearly all households earning over $100,000 -- 95 percent -- own at least one computer, and 92 percent are online. In homes earning under $40,000, the online figure plummets to 41 percent. Homes in the West are the most wired at 67 percent, closely followed by the Northeast and Midwest. Southern households had the lowest percentage of online computers at 52 percent.”

Recap: Those of us who belong to a minority group, make less money, did not go to college, and live in the south are less likely to have access to the Beach Advisory website.

The EPA requires states, tribes, and local governments to “post a sign or functional equivalent when a water quality standard is exceeded”. But, does the sign above and a website warning really qualify as a public notification of danger?

Casey DeMoss Roberts is the Special Projects Coordinator for the Gulf Restoration Network

 

I had a harrowing day at the beach once. When I was 5 years old my family took me to Galveston . The movie Jaws had just opened and everyone was a little on edge. It was toward the end of the day though when all hell broke loose. Out of the quiet hypnotic wave sounds burst a blood-curdling scream. “Shark! AHHhhhhh!!” I looked up from my crooked sand castle and saw my father practically running on top of the water. When he got to shore, it became apparent that the shark was in fact a jellyfish and not a very big one. My uncle’s gave him the most hilarious ribbing for the rest of the evening. This was the worst it ever got on the beach for me. Nowadays though, the thing that gets you is hard to see.

Just ask the Holmes’. Ten weeks after they spent a day at Galveston beach, their 9 year old daughter Megan came down with post-infectious gastroparesis. Now Megan will have memories of her gall-bladder surgery, emergency room visits, and living with a feeding tube. She is not alone though. Many American children have been exposed to harmful life-threatening chemicals and biological pathogens at the beach.

According to the new NRDC* report, “Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches,” the number of no-swim days caused by stormwater more than doubled from the year before. This led to “sewage spills and overflows causing 1,301 beach closings and advisory days in 2006, an increase of 402 days from 2005.” What does this statistic really say? Beaches had to be closed because there was feces on the beach.

The blame lies in our aging sewage systems and poorly designed storm run-off structures. Combine that with unrestrained development of wetlands, irresponsible sprawl on the coasts, and climate changes and you have got a formula for disease. Who suffers? Those who are already at increased risk for infection: children, the elderly, and the immune- compromised (cancer patients, people with organ transplants, HIV+, and others). Risks include gastroenteritis, dysentery, hepatitis**, respiratory ailments among other health problems.

“Families can’t use the beaches in their own communities because they are polluted. Kids are getting sick – all because of sewage and contaminated runoff from outdated, under-funded treatment systems,” said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC’s water program. It begs the question: Are we budget cutting ourselves to death?

Before swearing off beaches forever, you should know that all is not lost. The Beach Protection Act of 2007 (H.R. 2537/S. 1506) introduced in May will reauthorize the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act (BEACH Act) of 2000. This bill will mandate rapid testing methods that can detect beach water contamination in just two hours or less as well as increase funding levels for source tracking and pollution prevention.

NRDC is offering beachgoers an opportunity to discuss their personal Beach Bums (bad bad beach!) and Beach Buddies (yeah, good beach!). To post a comment, visit NRDC's new Your Oceans website, where you can find fun summer tips for being safe and healthy while at the beach.

*NRDC is a member organization of the Gulf Restoration Network!

**Hepatitis C is not considered a risk factor as it is only transmitted through direct contact with infected blood.

 

Casey DeMoss Roberts is the Special Projects Coordinator for the Gulf Restoration Network

 

Since it's World Oceans Day today, what better occasion to celebrate a significant step towards sustainable fisheries management here in the Gulf - Our fisheries consultant Marianne Cufone weighs in on red snapper and the Gulf Council.

I’ve been watching and participating in fisheries management for well over 10 years, 8 of which have been right here in the Gulf of Mexico. Today, I’m thinking about what went on during this week at the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council meeting in New Orleans, LA. Yesterday, at long last, the Council, an advisory body to the National Marine Fisheries Service (the agency tasked with managing fish for the U.S.) finally recommended some REAL management for red snapper. The new rules include: reducing the total annual catch from 9.12 million pounds to 5.0, lowering the commercial size limit from 15 inches to 13, lowering the recreational bag limit from 4 fish per person to 2, setting a recreational fishing season, eliminating captains and crew members from taking the daily recreational bag limit of fish on for-hire boats (charter and head boats), and requiring the use of circle hooks, venting and de-hooking tools to reduce bycatch. Maybe this sounds like no big deal, but in actuality it was a historical occasion.

Why is the recommendation of some fish rules a major accomplishment? A few reasons - First, the Council is dominated by recreational and commercial fish interests, and government folks that often lean toward those interests (since they are from states where fishing is very popular). This means many of those that make money from catching fish are helping to recommend regulations for catching fish. Not surprisingly then, most times the development of regulations are super slow (if they are going to limit catch or access to fishing) and when rules are finally approved, they are often not as strict as the science indicates necessary. Why would people that make money from a resource vote to limit the amount they can take from it? Well, in this instance, because the law says so, - the primary federal law about fish says we have to conserve and manage fish for the benefit of the nation, and that there are certain levels that fish populations can’t fall under. If they do, managers are supposed to take action. Red snapper has been under that level since the late 1980’s… but this was overlooked for years.

Second, red snapper is a super popular seafood item, and thus also a favorite catch for both recreational anglers and commercial fishermen/women. The annual allowed catch is split 49% recreational - 51% commercial. Red snapper therefore, are big money in the form of getting a good price at the dock and also getting people to book charterboat trips to go catch them. Big $$ = big debate over limiting catch…and so there were lengthy arguments, challenges to science and serious manipulation of politicos and information for years and years. Nearly 20 years in fact…red snapper has been known to be severely depleted since about 1988.

Red snapper’s target recovery date (the time by which the population should be back to a healthy level) was originally the year 2000. Seven years ago. Then it got moved back to 2007 (yes, this year), then it was changed to 2019, then 2032, each time to allow continued overfishing of red snapper. Consequently, studies show red snapper down to 3% of its historical population. Yikes. Tofu anyone?

We got to such a depleted population because despite knowing red snapper were doing poorly and that lack of management likely meant red snapper would continue to decline or at least not rebuild, the Council and NMFS bent to political pressures and ignored the advice of scientists, setting catch levels too high and allowing too many fish to be caught and killed as bycatch. We came to a point where really severe management was necessary to avoid a total population collapse. The measures I mentioned above were approved by the Council and now await final NMFS approval to stop overfishing, reduce bycatch and help rebuild red snapper. Yippie – finally.

However, that is sadly not the end to this saga. Old habits die hard, and even as the new red snapper plan was being finalized, the Council added in an assumed 10% reduction in effort to catch red snapper attributed to hurricane impacts, despite a lack of credible science indicating this. This means the rules will assume we are already meeting some of the necessary reduction in catch…we’ll have to wait to see what that does to the final outcome. They also voted to allow an increase in bycatch of red snapper as the population (hopefully) rebuilds under the new plan.

Oh wait, there’s more...right after they voted to send the whole plan to NMFS for final approval, they started discussions about changing it! The Council now wants to look at the concept of regional specific catch limits (for example eastern verses western Gulf) to see if they can squeeze just a bit more out of the total catch limit in certain places, based on local red snapper abundance. So, if there are more red snapper found in the west verses in the east, then the west could get more quota.

Unbelievable...if you haven’t been part of the process for years. If you know this bunch, then its merely typical.

Adding to the hooplah of yesterday were colorful characters from various groups insisting that there were MORE (not less) red snapper out there than ever before…you could walk on red snapper across the Gulf from Texas to Florida practically, and no one can catch anything else (wait…does this mean ALL the other fish are depleted? That’s another issue for another day).

Others claimed that fish kissers (GRN, the Ocean Conservancy and other environmental groups) were weaving a story about red snapper being depleted and that the science indicating a problem with red snapper was simply a result of imagination. Funny, the judge didn’t see it that way in the lawsuit GRN and other groups recently won on the issue, forcing a red snapper management plan that had at least a 50% chance of success (do you believe this is the standard we use???) to be in place by December 31, 2007. It was such a clear case, we actually won on a summary judgment…no trial, no further consideration. Sadly, I think it took the litigation to motivate the final outcome of yesterday…but whatever. After all these years, it seems red snapper will finally be on the road to recovery.

Marianne Cufone is the GRNs Consultant on Fisheries Issues, based in Tampa Florida.

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