Prozac, estrogen, fertilizer, pesticides, anti-bacterial soap and
countless other chemicals pour into the ocean off southeast Florida,
shot through sewer pipes and washed off lawns, golf courses, roads and
Environmentalists have long suspected this chemical brew of playing a
role in the decline of coral reefs. Now a study by academic and
government scientists has tentatively linked sewage pipes and coastal
runoff to coral damage off southeast Florida.
The study found that coral near sewage pipes and inlets — where urban
and agricultural runoff flows into the ocean — showed harmful changes
in levels of molecules associated with the ability to heal wounds. When
scientists cut holes in corals, they found the ones near sewage pipes
and inlets took longer to heal. At samples tested next to the Hollywood
sewer pipe, wounds expanded rather than healed.
"Those are indications of environmental stress, for the most part from
land-based sources," said Phillip Dustan, professor of biology at the
College of Charleston and an author of the study, which was funded by
state and federal environmental agencies. "This is something we should
have done 30 years ago, when we saw the reef was degrading. People have
said you can’t prove this is happening. Well, we’re beginning to prove
this is happening."
This summer, the researchers will begin a
more extensive study intended to tie the damage to specific chemicals,
such as particular fertilizers, nutrients or pharmaceuticals. Once that
study is completed, it could lead to tighter sewage-treatment
requirements, as well as campaigns to encourage people to avoid
fertilizers and other chemicals that could reach the reefs.
sewage pipes in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties discharge
about 300 million gallons a day into the ocean. Although the sewage
undergoes treatment, no one claims the water is perfectly clean.
Rich in nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and ammonia, the treated
sewage is suspected of fueling the growth of algae that smother reefs.
Charter captains and other savvy anglers have learned to head to the
discharge areas for king mackerel and other species that feed on
smaller, algae-eating fish. Easily detected by the smell of chlorine,
the outfall pipes off Hollywood, Delray Beach and other cities provide
excellent fishing to those capable of putting aside the reason for the
"A lot of small baitfish and lower creatures will
live around the outfalls, probably because of the water disturbance and
nutrients," said Ron Mallet, who runs the charter boat Just Add Water.
"It’s something we don’t mind, from a fishing standpoint. It’s a
routine. Many times, boats, when the bite is slow, they ride right out
to the stink hole."
The reef research is being coordinated by
the Southeast Florida Coral Reef Initiative, a state-sponsored group of
scientists and government officials trying to come up with ways to
protect the reefs against ship groundings, coastal development and
"The ultimate goal of the project is going to be
to identify how land-based sources of pollution might be affecting
southeast Florida’s coral-reef ecosystem," said Chantal Collier, a reef
specialist for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, who
is program manager for the Southeast Florida Coral Reef Initiative.
"And to try to identify specific linkages between pollutants and coral
If the follow-up study succeeds in linking
coral degradation to sewage, there are ways to limit the damage,
officials said. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection
could require additional treatment before discharge, although that
would likely raise rates for homeowners. Or plants could inject more of
the sewage into deep underground disposal wells, although that practice
has caused treated sewage to migrate upward into potential sources of
By David Fleshler