Photo: Oxygen-starved dead zones in Bandon Beach, Oregon

Though the rugged islands and sea stacks of the Oregon coast are protected by federal statute, menacing signs have been appearing in the water in recent years, including several oxygen-starved dead zones.

Photograph by Tyrone Turner

Written by Joel K. Bourne, Jr.

Republished from the pages of National Geographic magazine

On a gorgeous San Diego afternoon, 64-year-old surfing legend Skip Frye strokes his longboard into a towering blue wall of water hurtling toward the aptly named Sunset Cliffs. He fades left to discourage a half dozen teenagers from dropping in, then smoothly carves a fat bottom turn to the right, climbing the wave, cross-walking to the nose, gliding like a gull across the wave's wind-brushed face. On the surface, it s a quintessential California day.

Under the surface, it's a murkier story. Surfers know the popular break as "North Garbage." Just a few miles down the beach, the Point Loma Water Treatment plant spews 180 million gallons (681 million liters) a day of partially treated sewage into a pipe that carries it 4.5 miles (7.2 kilometers) out into the ocean. Until it was extended in 1993, the 12-foot-diameter (3.7-meter-diameter) pipe was only 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) long, and its brown plume often ended up in the surf zone. Storm drains flush car-drippings such as oil, gas, and brake dust, along with a raft of coffee cups, soda bottles, and pet excrement, straight into San Diego's surf breaks every time it rains. Frye and his fellow surfers now routinely suffer a laundry list of waterborne ailments, from sinus and ear infections to more serious illnesses like hepatitis.

"There will be a time when the sea's dead," says Frye, who once predicted San Diego's waves would be too toxic to surf by 2000. "We're kind of like the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike."

And yet, still the masses come, lured by surf, sand, and laid-back lifestyles. Call it the Jimmy Buffett syndrome. Every week more than 3,300 new residents land in southern California, while another 4,800 hit Florida's shores. Every day 1,500 new homes rise along the U.S. coastline. More than half the nation's population now lives in coastal counties, which amount to only 17 percent of the land in the lower 48. In 2003 coastal watersheds generated over six trillion dollars, more than half the national economy, making them among our most valuable assets. Yet two blue-ribbon bipartisan panels—the Pew Oceans Commission and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, convened by the Pew Trusts and the U.S. Congress, respectively—recently issued disturbing reports that found the coasts are being battered by an array of pollution and population pressures. Former Secretary of Energy Adm. James D. Watkins—not exactly a wild-eyed environmentalist—chaired the U.S. commission and laid it out for Congress:

"Our failure to properly manage the human activities that affect the nation's oceans, coasts, and Great Lakes is compromising their ecological integrity…threatening human health, and putting our future at risk."

What follows are stories of people with salt water in their veins, who, in ways large and small, are having an impact on our shores.

I. SURFING'S DYNAMIC DUO

In which a surfer and his wife ride a wave of clean water populism into San Diego's city hall

In the tattooed, slash-and-burn circus that passes for surf culture these days, Harry Richard "Skip" Frye is the sport's Fred Astaire, a quiet, God-fearing surfer and surfboard shaper whose unmistakable style on and off the water speaks louder than his words. At a time in his life when many of his contemporaries are contemplating bypass surgery, Frye spent his 64th birthday surfing for hours in head-high surf, riding everything from monster 12-foot (3.7-meter) longboards to short high-speed "fish" designs that he helped immortalize in the 1960s. To anyone who has ever tried to sit on a surfboard, much less paddle one in big surf, the feat was impressive. But what truly impressed the lifeguards, who let him into San Onofre State Park early, was the hour he spent forgoing the fantastic waves to pick up trash along the beach.

"In Genesis, God lays it out," says Frye as he dusts off his latest creation—an alabaster fish with so many subtle curves da Vinci could appreciate its potential for flight. "We're in charge of Earth, but we have a responsibility to take care of it."

It's a responsibility Frye has been taking seriously for years, going back to the days when he used to pick up garbage around Harry's, the old-school surf shop that he and friend Harry "Hank" Warner ran for years just off the boardwalk at Pacific Beach. The strip of beach shops and bars serves as party central for much of San Diego, hitting a peak on the Fourth of July. July 5 is now officially dubbed by local beach activists the "morning after mess." Says Frye: "It's like they took the landfill, backed it up, and dumped it on the beach. It's the sickest thing you can imagine. I used to get very down on the human race."

Those are the kinds of thoughts that Skip's wife, Donna—who has more faith in people's ability to clean up their own messes—tries to temper. While Skip has evolved into a quiet role model for many surfers, Donna—loud, proud, and a veteran activist—became galvanized by the clean water issue after she and Skip opened Harry's back in 1990. "People kept coming into the surf shop with a variety of ailments," she recalls. "First I was skeptical. Oh, the swell's up, sure you're sick!'" Then in September 1995, Skip came in from surfing in water unusually brown and murky. Normally healthy as a seahorse, Skip felt dizzy and short of breath and was so weak he couldn't drive home. "I did some research and found out that nearly all the popular surf spots were in front of storm drains or river mouths," Donna says. "We actually mapped them and tried to find out what was in them."

Donna explains all this in her husky Lauren Bacall voice. Her deep tan, straight blond hair, and ready smile give her a surfer-girl facade, but that quickly fades when she starts reeling off TMDLs, BMPs, and other arcane nuances of clean water regulations. What they found in 19 storm drains along some of San Diego's most popular surfing beaches was disgusting: Total coliform bacteria counts—which should be below 1,000 parts per million (ppm) for safe swimming—as high as 1.6 million ppm; counts of sewage-loving fecal coliform—which should be below 200 ppm for safe swimming—as high as 240,000. Armed with hard data, Donna launched a tireless campaign to get warning signs posted by the storm drains, fix leaking sewer pipes, require more stringent beach-water monitoring, and divert the worst offending drains into the sewer system.

Her activism eventually catapulted her onto the city council in 2001, one of the few Democrats to win a seat in the largely Republican town. Such is the power of her clean water message that Donna has twice nearly won the mayor's seat, losing by 8 percent last November to a former police chief. With city hall wracked with scandals and mountains of debt from the previous administration, San Diegans chose the conservative cop over the radical clean water activist.

Donna takes it all in stride. Since she began her campaign in the mid-1990s, the city has experienced 70 percent fewer sewage spills and 60 percent fewer beach closures. The beaches are better, she says, but there's much more to be done, like restoring the San Diego River and upgrading the Point Loma wastewater plant to secondary treatment.

"One of the jabs against me was, She may know clean water, but what's she know about running a city?" Donna says with that husky laugh. "Let me tell you, dirty water, dirty politics, it all comes from the same source."

II. THE CONCERNED SCIENTIST

In which a marine scholar uses science and charm to sound the alarm about the state of the coasts

Far from the beaches of San Diego, a dozen or so young men and women in foul-weather gear and fleece scramble over a rocky Oregon headland on a low-tide scientific quest. Some collect bright orange pot scrubbers and gray squares of Plexiglas bolted amid a carpet of brown mussels. Others filter seawater through a sieve or measure the location of floppy sea palms with a transit. One student even scours the tide pools for sea urchin tube feet for something she calls the Urchin Genome Project.

Amid the blitzkrieg of data collection, a woman with short reddish brown hair, green Wellies, and gold sea star earrings hops from rock to rock, passing out organic chocolate, lending a hand or a word of advice when needed. Jane Lubchenco and her husband and colleague, Bruce Menge, both of Oregon State University, have tried to understand this salty world for the past 28 years—and with that gain a greater understanding of the fundamental ecological principles that govern all life on Earth.

"The rocky intertidal area is incredibly good for studying the interactions between land and oceans," says Lubchenco, a past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of the Pew Oceans Commission. "We're trying to understand the linkages and how they're affected by human activity. Nutrient pollution, global warming, fishing, a whole number of things are all coming together right along the littoral zone."

Today, however, the two scientists are trying to wrap their brains around one of the knottiest problems in marine biology: recruitment, or how many young of a species come into a system each year. Unlike land animals, in which the young stay within a population, ocean species tend to spread their little guys to the currents, while receiving others from afar, making it impossible for fisheries managers to know how much of a stock fishermen can sustainably catch each year. After years of trial and error, Menge discovered that plastic pot scrubbers are the perfect media for catching baby mussels, while Plexiglas squares coated with scratchy nonslip paint are the perfect landing spots for baby barnacles. And baby mussels and barnacles act much like baby rockfish and Dungeness crabs, two species worth millions to West Coast fishermen each year.

"It looks clean, and compared with other parts of the world it is," Lubchenco says. "That doesn't mean it's not under threat. Development is rampant here, as is overfishing. One of the largest restricted fishing areas in the world is right off our coast—8,000 square miles (21,000 square kilometers) to protect six rockfish species that were overfished."

Such a concept was unthinkable back in 1969 when Congress appointed the Stratton Commission to prepare the first report on the U.S. coastal zone, which subsequently laid the foundation for current coastal policies. The Stratton commissioners saw the ocean as a source of endless bounty, encouraging the federal government to build up U.S. fishing fleets and drill for oil and gas offshore. Some 40 years later, says Lubchenco, it has become painfully obvious just how finite marine resources are and how great a bite humans have taken out of them: 90 percent of the world's large pelagic fishes, like tuna, marlin, and sharks, gone; three-quarters of the world's major fisheries exploited, overfished, or depleted; and enough oil spilling out of U.S. cars to equal an Exxon Valdez-size spill every eight months. Nearly 150 dead zones now occur around the world, including one off the Oregon coast that first appeared in 2002 and that has recurred twice since. Most ominous of all, Lubchenco says, is that the oceans absorb fully half of all the CO2 released by humans—perhaps one of the greatest services the seas provide. But the vast amount of CO2 entering the oceans today is making them more acidic, which, combined with rising sea temperature, could have devastating consequences for anything with a shell or skeleton, essentially making them slower, thinner, and more susceptible to predation.

The good news is that marine systems can recover to a surprising degree if given the chance. Lubchenco and many of her colleagues are increasingly convinced that a network of marine reserves where sea creatures and habitats are permanently protected would be a powerful tool in restoring fisheries along the U.S. coasts. Studies of reserves in Merritt Island, Florida, and in California's Channel Islands have shown that such havens give female fish time to grow, and big fat females are the key. "The number of young a fish produces is a product of its volume," Lubchenco explains. "A vermilion rockfish this big"—she spreads her hands apart 14 inches (36 centimeters)—"produces 150,000 babies. One this big"—she moves her hands apart 24 inches (61 centimeters)—"produces 1.7 million. Ten of the little girls can't produce what one of the big girls can. It's true for invertebrates as well."

But the time to act, she says, is now. "There are more bizarre things happening in the ocean than we've ever seen before," including the first known failure of the spring northerly winds to blow off the Pacific Northwest coast, in 2005. The normally predictable winds drive a nutrient-rich upwelling just offshore; without the upwelling there was no food for the phytoplankton at the base of the food chain. The result was a mass die-off of cormorants, murres, and auklets, and extremely low fish catches all the way to Point Conception, California.

The alternative no one wants to consider is another fundamental ecological principle learned in the rocky intertidal zone: altered stable states. "That's when you tweak a system to such an extent it may not recover," says Lubchenco, leading to more harmful algal blooms, more dead zones, more fisheries collapse, more invasive species, and, oddly enough, massive blooms of jellyfish.

III. THE BIG DEVELOPER

In which Florida's largest private landholder decides to grow boomer communities instead of pine trees along a vast swath of the Panhandle

The first baby boomers turned 60 last January, the cutting edge of what will soon be the wealthiest, healthiest, and largest group of retirees the nation has ever seen, some 78 million strong. Imagine a tidal wave of fit, tanned, sixtysomethings crashing on the nation's shores every year.

That suits Peter Rummell just fine. The former real estate guru for Disney now calls the shots at the St. Joe Company, Florida's former paper-and-timber giant that he has transformed into one of the largest coastal developers in the nation. Rummell beat the boomers to the big 6-0 by a couple of months. Tanned, fit, and with a wreath of short-cropped gray hair, he could be George C. Scott's laid-back younger brother. "We think there are enormous numbers of people getting to my age who have flexibility in their lifestyles," Rummell says. "They're not staying in Cincinnati 12 months of the year. They're looking for warmer climates, particularly Florida. It's a proven track record for 75 years."

In fact, quips Jerry Ray, St. Joe's VP for corporate communications, the entire state of Pennsylvania—that's 12 million people—will be moving to Florida in the next 25 years, according to census projections. To meet that demand, Rummell and his team are turning vast tracts of pines into tony resort developments, aimed at feeding the hearts and minds of wealthy, nature-loving second-home buyers.

So how do you squeeze all those people into a backwater chunk of Florida, once dubbed "the forgotten coast," without destroying the natural beauty that draws people to the area in the first place? The trick is planning, Rummell says, master planning, to be exact. At their showplace resort of WaterColor, about 40 miles west of Panama City, Jerry Ray proudly pointed out how far back the houses and the trademark WaterColor Inn—which looks like a large, tastefully done lifeguard station—are set behind the sugary dunes. Natural areas full of native Florida species, such as sand pines, saw palmettos, and sweet bay magnolias, are laced with hiking and biking trails that sweep around a natural coastal lake, forming a buffer zone. The houses, built like quaint bomb shelters, are designed in what the company calls Cracker Modern, or where redneck Florida meets rich, tasteful Nantucket. While it's more spread out than the groundbreaking New Urbanism development of Seaside—the idyllic backdrop for The Truman Show just next door—many of the concepts are the same: Make it walkable with everything one could need within a ten-minute stroll, protect natural areas like the beach and lake and make them community amenities, get people to park their cars and leave them idle for their entire stay.

Such concepts were reinforced after Rummell took a tour of Mississippi beach towns devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita last year. Rummell was surprised to see newer gas stations and grocery stores relatively unscathed while the older homes and cottages got hammered. "It was apparent that the quality of construction makes an enormous difference," he says.

With more than 300,000 acres (1,214 square kilometers) in the coastal zone, a market capitalization of 4.5 billion dollars, and plenty of political clout, St. Joe can do what other developers only dream about. In one section of Gulf County, the company is moving 13 miles (21 kilometers) of U.S. Highway 98, which currently runs through Joe lands right along the Gulf, a few miles inland. The public gets a new flood-protected four-lane and the longest shoreside hike trail in the state, while St. Joe gets miles of secluded beachfront acreage. In Bay County, the company has donated 4,000 acres (16.2 square kilometers) to build a controversial regional airport to service its future homeowners, while setting aside almost 10,000 acres (40.5 square kilometers) as a conservation buffer zone around nearby West Bay, important habitat for migratory songbirds such as scarlet tanagers and Kentucky warblers.

Not everyone is thrilled with St. Joe's vision. Environmental groups recently won a temporary injunction against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for granting the company an unprecedented permit to develop nearly 50,000 acres (202 square kilometers) on the shores of three coastal bays that would destroy 1,500 acres (60.7 square kilometers) of wetlands, even though the company had promised to mitigate that loss by creating or enhancing more wetlands elsewhere.

"Wetlands are not widgets," says Melanie Shephardson, staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the groups that filed the suit. "They serve different functions. Just setting aside some acreage and buffers might sound good, but at the end of the day you have to make sure that these bays, with all their species diversity, are not going to be harmed."

The injunction, which halted some work on one of the company's developments, makes Rumrnell fume. "There are still people scared of growth," he says. "But it gets back to our vision of what the world is going to look like in thirty years. I want this part of Florida to be a better version of itself. It would be a shame if it got high-rised to death. I would declare success if ten years from now someone says this looks like it should be here. In the real estate world, that's hard to do."

In the aquatic world, that's hard to do too.

IV. THE SHELLFISH GUYS

In which a group of small-town locals, armed with good data, grant money, and a taste for clams, learns it takes a village to tackle runoff

It's a balmy day in January by New England standards—48 degrees (8.9 Celsius) air temperature, 38 degrees (3.3 Celsius) water temperature—as Greg Sawyer, a big, good-natured shellfish biologist for the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, and shellfish constable Carry Buckminster pull their Boston Whaler alongside a clammer's workboat for a chat. Tommy Caradimos, who has spent the past 20 of his 50 years as a commercial shell fisherman, rests his bull rake on the gunnel to show the rewards of an hour's worth of hard labor: a smattering of purplish gray clams ranging from biscuit-size chowders down to littlenecks.

"He's one of the hard core," Sawyer says, as he samples the waters of Wareham, Massachusetts. "He'll be out there five hours when it's 30 degrees (-1 degree Celsius) and blowing. You don't want to arm-wrestle these guys, trust me."

Any region that has five commercial sizes for a clam takes its shellfish seriously, and the Wareham area leads the pack. Unlike a brand-new development in Florida, here 54 miles (87 kilometers) of serpentine beaches along Buzzards Bay have been attracting visitors since Grover Cleveland moved his summer White House to the bay back in 1893. The population of roughly 20,000 doubles in the summer months, clogging the roads with cars, the rivers with boats, and the small cottages that pack the shores with clam-loving people.

Back in the early 1990s, however, the thick beds of quahogs and soft-shells in the town's Broad Marsh River were closed to shellfishing for years, thanks to high fecal coliform counts from runoff that poured off the streets directly into the river. That prompted Sawyer, who also samples the waters of five nearby villages, to dangle a carrot in front of town officials: Remediate the runoff, get the bacteria counts down, and he might be able to open 65 acres (26 hectares) of shellfish area.

Mark Clifford, head of the town's public works department, took the bait, and with help from the Buzzards Bay National Estuary Project, and a few state and federal grants, he began tearing up the old roads along the river and installing sand galleys—big perforated concrete boxes that work like septic tanks for the roads. It wasn't easy. He had to stick the things down between old gas, water, and sewer lines, and deal with a whole new wad of paperwork to get the grants. But the galleys worked. By 1998 the entire river was open to shellfishing.

"All you need to do is get that first inch of water into the sand galleys," Sawyer says, "because that contains the most contaminants and fecal coliform. You get that filtered out, you're ahead of the game."

After that it became something of an addiction. Gifford has installed hundreds of the galleys in Wareham, with the neighboring town of Bourne following suit. Such galleys didn't work for the heavier soils of nearby Marion, so that town put in a man-made wetland instead, with the help of hundreds of volunteers. What used to be a ditch that routinely had fecal coliform levels in the thousands is now a meandering stream full of rushes and boulders, where counts are barely detectable at the outfall. The water is so clean you can eat the clams at the end of pipe.

Just last year, Wareham bit a big bullet and spent more than 20 million dollars to upgrade its sewer treatment plant to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus levels entering the watershed, the prime drivers behind algal blooms. Though sewer bills almost doubled, the town now has the cleanest wastewater treatment facility in the state.

"We're picking away at it," Gifford says. "We couldn't have done it without state and federal grants, or the help of guys like Greg."

It's a never-ending process, especially as the population grows. Last year New England suffered its worst red tide outbreak in decades, prompting the closure of nearly 80 percent of the Massachusetts coast to shellfishing. It was the first ever occurrence of red tide in Buzzards Bay. Though a natural phenomenon, the algal bloom was exacerbated by last year's heavy spring runoff. But Sawyer believes that there is a growing public awareness in the area about the importance of protecting aquatic resources. Recently a Boston multimillionaire bought a "McMansion" in a nearby town and filled in a small marsh so his manicured lawn could run down to his tennis court. He wanted to donate $400,000 to the town as mitigation money to go build another salt marsh elsewhere. "The town said no, you will put back that marsh exactly where it was," Sawyer says with a chuckle.

And perhaps that's the ultimate lesson of the U.S. and Pew oceans commissions. Aside from a slew of ocean policy reforms recommended by the two commissions, ultimately if we want safe beaches, abundant wildlife, stable fisheries, healthy seafood, and vibrant coastal communities, says Oregon State's Jane Lubchenco, we're going to need a new ocean ethic.

"There's no single silver bullet that's going to fix the problem," Lubchenco says. "The problems are complex and come from things we've been doing on land for a long time that are coming back to haunt us. But we need to understand that oceans are both valuable and vulnerable, and they are finite. It's important that we restore them not just because it helps us, but because it's the right thing to do."

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