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Coastal waters in trouble
Growth in Delaware and nation contribute to beach closings and economic losses

By MOLLY MURRAY
Sussex Bureau reporter
04/21/2004


Thirty years of coastal changes are clear from Fenwick Island to Lewes, where million-dollar houses now stand on land that in the 1950s supported a thriving fishery.

Today, those towns share the struggles of many coastal communities in the nation: coping with rapid growth, improving sewage treatment and supporting a thriving tourism industry. They are part of a coastal development boom that a federal commission says poses a mounting threat to coastal waters.

"Our oceans and coasts are in trouble and we need to change the way we manage them," said James D. Watkins, a retired admiral and former Energy secretary who is chairman of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy.

In a 500-page preliminary report on the state of the nation's coastal waters issued Tuesday, the commission points to growing concerns: declining fisheries, runoff from land heavy with nutrients that harm fish and shellfish, pollution causing beach closings and the loss of wetlands and coral reefs that serve as nurseries for aquatic life.

To address what is called ocean degradation, the commission issued more than 200 recommendations that would cost $1.3 billion the first year, $2.4 billion the second year and $3.2 billion annually after that. To pay for it, the commission wants the government to set up a trust fund with $4 billion annually from oil and gas royalties.

Many of the recommendations will be politically difficult, but, Watkins said, the report outlines a step-by-step approach and offers ways to pay for it.

"It doesn't break the bank," he said. "There's a lot of momentum on this now."

The recommendations include:

? Increased efforts to reduce ocean pollution from land-based sources such as farms, housing and industrial sites.

? More research and creation of an agency to coordinate research and exploration.

? Better coordination of federal agencies that deal with ocean issues, partly by establishing a National Ocean Council and a Presidential Council of Advisers on Ocean Policy.

? A new approach to ocean management that looks at ecosystems rather than political boundaries or specific species. States, regional commissions and 14 federal agencies now make decisions on coastal issues.

The effort is important because oceans, estuaries and bays are vital natural resources that are highly valuable to the national economy.

For example, ocean ports handle more than $700 billion in goods each year and commercial fisheries have a value that exceeds $28 billion a year. Recreation and tourism bring in millions more, providing an important part of Delaware's economy.

"We all have a stake in it," said Maria Trabka of the Nature Conservancy's Southern Bayshores Project, which works to protect critical habitat along Delaware Bay. "The fact that we're warned to eat not more than one finfish meal a year from the lower Delaware Bay is a crime."

Population pressure

The report discussed the strain placed on coastal waters and bays by development, which loads the ocean with sewage and other pollutants, along with nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus.

In the Delaware area, for example, the nutrients cause algal blooms in the Inland Bays and coastal waters. The blooms of microscopic organisms die off and rob oxygen from the water, creating "dead zones" that can kill fish and shellfish unable to escape.

Sewage and other types of pollution spark bacteria growth, which resulted in 12,000 pollution-related beach closings and advisories nationwide in 2002. Delaware's ocean beaches have not had to close in recent years.

But PCBs continue to enter the Delaware River even though production was banned years ago. The chemical, which accumulated on land and in groundwater, continues to settle into the river bottom, prompting state environmental officials to recommend limits on fish consumption.

The commission report said population in coastal watershed counties grew by 37 million people from 1970 to 2000, with 21 million more expected by 2015.

Growth along Delaware's coast has outpaced the national average. In Sussex County the overall increase in population between 1990 and 2000 was 38 percent, according to U.S. Census data.

The bulk of that growth came along the coast, where the population grew by 59 percent and density now averages 257 people per square mile, according to the University of Delaware's Sea Grant College Program. That compares with a density of 132 people per square mile in central Sussex.

The commission said a critical part of any solution is greater understanding of the importance of the oceans, and better science to support regulation and future ocean enterprises, such as offshore wind power generators or undersea mining.

"The American people don't even know how important the oceans are to them," said Christophe Tulou, a former secretary of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, president of The Center for SeaChange and former executive director of the Pew Oceans Commission, which issued a similar ocean report last year,

Even as people flock to the ocean, "most of us only experience the first 50 feet of it," Trabka said.

Training, study needed

What is needed are programs teaching stewardship and steps individuals can take to reduce their impact on the oceans and coast, ranging from cigarette butts on beaches to how much fertilizer to use on a lawn to when to replace an aging septic system.

There also is a need to train more people in ocean sciences to bolster understanding and support regulations, the commission said.

Gaps in supporting science have been a key issue in some of Delaware's efforts to better manage resources. Last year, for example, a state plan to reduce harvests of horseshoe crabs was challenged in court.

"The thrust of our argument was they didn't have good science," said Timothy Willard, a Georgetown attorney who represented a group of commercial fisherman who depend on horseshoe crabs for bait in conch and eel fisheries.

Roy Miller, Delaware's fisheries administrator, said he favors the commission's call for regulation to become more comprehensive and based on solid knowledge of how species interact in an ecosystem such as Delaware Bay.

"Now we have a species-by-species approach," he said.

Funding ocean research

Advancing science education would be aided by the commission's call for a dedicated trust fund to pay for ocean research.

"There has been a real drop-off in our capability of studying the ocean" because of decreased funding, said Carolyn A. Thoroughgood, dean of the University of Delaware's College of Marine Studies. The result is "a hodgepodge" of research and management strategies, she said.

For Delaware, such an approach would involve looking at resources and how they fit in with an area that extends from Cape Cod in Massachusetts south to Cape Hatteras, N.C.

"The idea would be to almost look at our coastline by how the water functions, how the ocean functions," Thoroughgood said. Regional strategies would apply to pollution management, tracking nutrients, salinity and temperature changes, she said.

Oceans Commission member Andrew A. Rosenberg, dean of the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture at the University of New Hampshire, said the key is to recognize "that everything is connected to everything else."

Part of the commission's proposed structural changes include who decides how many fish should be harvested, and how harvest limits should be allocated, such as Delaware does now for horseshoe crabs or summer flounder.

Much of that work now is done by individual states, but coordinated by eight regional fisheries councils. Some environmental groups have complained that the councils are dominated by commercial fishing interests who ignore scientific advice.

A final report is to go to President Bush by the end of the year. It has been sent to governors for formal responses due in 30 days. Gov. Ruth Ann Minner will draw up a response after three workshops next month to gather public comments.
 
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