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HOW IMPORTANT IS OUR OCEAN

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Ed Tichnor director of Palm Beach County Reef Rescue are shown celebrating the closing of the Delray Beach

By John Christopher Fine

“They don’t want to hear about that %$#@.” I had to delete the expletive the director of a major film festival used. It was clear enough. He wanted me to present programs about ocean fun. Treasure hunting is great fun. Shipwrecks are terrific. Sharks even better. Nothing about ocean environment issues.

While I supposed he was wrong, while I assumed everyone wanted to know what was happening with the ocean systems of the world, I complied. Complied in part. At every annual film festival I presented at least one lecture about the status of the ocean environment and human impact upon its resources. He wasn’t wrong per se. Those lectures were attended by the choir. The rest of the film festival congregation went to see fun lectures in other rooms being held simultaneously. My treasure hunts overflowed capacity.

I put no question mark after the title here. We all somehow, even in the recesses of our thoughts, recognize the importance of our ocean. What, after all, would Boynton Beach, the place where I live in Florida, be like without its ocean front. That is not a question either. It would just be called Boynton or West Boynton or Major Boynton’s Wilderness. Hardly. The wilderness is gone. Huge developments have inhabited the swamps. Groves produce shopping carts and Florida’s boom has picked the bloom from all but preserved parks and protected Everglades.

Sure, the point is made. Even residents far out in former wilderness areas where orange groves once sprouted, where snakes and alligators prowled backwater swamps, want to know the ocean is within their range. Not everyone is a beach fanatic. Not all regard sea angling as a pastime. Fewer still are divers that head out on a regular basis to explore the majestic reefs right off Boynton’s public bathing beach. 

Just about one mile offshore south of the Boynton Inlet, all the way down to the Boca Raton Inlet, are some of the most beautiful and important reefs in the world. Without the predominantly northward flowing Gulf Stream that eddies in close to shore here, these reefs would be dead. The Gulf Stream acts like a huge ocean broom sweeping pollutants away. Diluting what we pump into our ocean, the Gulf Stream casts our waste over the vast Atlantic.

Sport angling supports a wider economic base. Diving operations have an economic impact. Take a stroll downtown. The revitalized Boynton Beach Municipal Marina is a bevy of activity. Head boat fishing, deep sea charter boats, dive boats, a major full-service Boynton Beach Dive Center facility a block away. Fourteen story condominiums brought prosperity to downtown. Development of so many more has inscribed Boynton’s marina area with a hallmark that says: “We that choose to live here love the ocean.’

Their view is spectacular. When day turns to evening and activity quiets, there is nothing more relaxing than a stroll along Boynton’s pier to the Intracoastal. The pier does not intrude, rather seems to have been built within the mangroves so visitors can enjoy their serenity. A beach walk evening or morning is good for the spirit.

So much for its beauty. So much for the marina prosperity that brings cash into Boynton Beach downtown. So much for the stuff condo owners, anglers, divers and diners spend while enjoying the view. Our ocean is more than a view. Without the barrier of offshore reefs hurricane force winds and waves would devastate coastal regions. The reefs that form here, in some 60 feet of depth  to the sand on the west side 80 feet deep to the sand on the eastern edge, break the force of ocean waves during storms. It is a system within the natural sphere of life that has been protecting a vague spit of land called Florida for eons. 

The reef offshore is alive. It is also under attack. Plastic debris covers coral and kills it. There is a lot of plastic debris. Those birthday balloons filled with helium and released seem to end up deflated on the reef. Please leash them and do not let them fly away. Even inland they seem to get lost over the ocean. Turtles think they are jellyfish, eat them and die.

More devastating in recent times has been the bloom of marine algae. I’ve reported on this phenomenon often. Think of the pond somewhere in your memory. Visualize it as completely green in summer sunshine. Green means plants. Algae. The same happens in the marine environment. Nitrogen, especially in the presence of phosphorus, is a nutrient. Algae love nitrogen. Nitrogen comes from all manner of waste. Fertilizer contains nitrogen. That’s how we feed our lawns and golf courses. It is how farmers in agriculture support sugar cane and other plantings. 

Florida is the largest cattle state in the nation. Cattle are fattened in feed lots in Florida. They are fed and over fed, given nutritional supplements, antibiotics and all manner of things that increase weight. Weight means increased profits. It runs off. Their waste runs off or evaporates. Everything evaporates in Florida. That does not mean disappearance as if by magic. Nothing disappears. It goes up into our atmosphere and returns in rain. Rain falls into the ocean or into storm drains and ends up in the ocean.

You have seen the gigantic canal that cuts across US 1 (Federal Highway) just north of Boynton Beach’s main drag. That canal carries water that is released when levels in the western areas get too high. Water managers do not want homes that were built on filled in swamps to flood out there. That water contains all manner of bad things. Nitrogen is prevalent. Out into the Intracoastal Waterway it goes then out into the ocean at tide change comes this cocktail that results in a plume of brown. Algae love it.

The resultant advantage, given marine algae with nitrogen as a nutrient, causes rapid growth. The algae chokes coral and kills it. One good effect of ocean storms is that algae becomes dislodged and is carried off with the Gulf Stream. Once coral is dead it requires many years to have it replaced. Coral is an animal, not a plant. The free swimming larvae settle on substrate then grow as colonies.

Anglers line the Boynton Inlet jetty. As we go out into the ocean on dive boats we see them catching fish. Some people eat their catch. Many catch fish they see little purpose keeping. Many bang the fish on jetty rocks or the concrete pier. Kill the fish then throw it back. One or two might mean nothing in the overall scheme of ocean ecology. Hundreds of anglers doing the same thing every day depletes fish populations. Small fish are eaten by bigger fish. If there are fewer small fish, or unpopular food fish that anglers waste, there will be fewer larger fish that people eat.

Most of the world depends on the oceans as an important food source. The land can hardly support a world population tottering at almost 7 billion people. Once inexhaustible fish stocks are now depleted. Moratoriums have been imposed on commercial fishing to try and save breeding stocks, to try to save whole fisheries in danger of depletion. No fish=no food. No food, well we don’t seem to concern ourselves with that so long as we can drive to Publix supermarket and load up our shopping carts.

Every single person can make a huge difference. If only we reuse that plastic bag twice, imagine the saving. If we try to decrease the use of harmful pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers imagine the environmental impact. Of course you won’t have the greenest lawn in your subdivision. All you really have anyways is an inch or two of sod in top soil. Under that is just sand. That is why you moved to Florida. Sun and sand. Pave it over with an inch of sod and you disguise it. Don’t try to get your golf club to change overnight. They won’t do it. Just figure it out for yourselves and make it a question: ‘How important is our ocean?’