A Bit Of Reef Relief
July, 18th 2004
By David Helvarg
Shortly after the Blue Vision Conference in July I went down to Florida for a board meeting of Reef Relief, during their annual Reef Awareness Week in Key West.
On the way south for four days of above and below water meetings (with hawksbill turtles, nurse sharks, and barracudas among other interesting characters) I had a five-hour lay-over in Fort Lauderdale. Luckily I’d gotten to meet Dan and Stephanie Clark of Cry of the Water at the Conference. My plane lands at 11 am. At 11:30 Stephanie picks me up outside the baggage area and drives me across the intercoastal waterway, down to Sunrise Blvd. and the beach. Here we’re met by Dan and some members of the local kayuba (kayak & scuba) club. I strip down to my bathing suit, put on snorkel gear and we swim out beyond the urban high rises and construction cranes, the post-Spring Break thong bikinis and crowded hot strand to a surprisingly live reef including several acres of staghorn coral just over 1,000 feet offshore. From here we kayak over to another site that includes a healthy pillar coral being investigated by a curious queen angel fish along with some bright green parrot fish. A short time later the 42-foot glass bottom boat “Sea Experience” hooks up with us. We’re invited aboard for lunch and to meet several research scientists and activists interested in this northernmost stretch of Florida reef, the last living coral in Broward County. Presently its threatened by Army Corps of Engineers plans for beach ‘replenishment’ which could bury it in sand, possible gas pipelines, fiber-optic cables, and other offshore development designed to match the runaway development onshore (Save Our Shoreline is another local seaweed group fighting to preserve some of what attracted people here in the first place). After 40 minutes aboard, including a video-taped conversation about the seaweed rebellion, the ‘Experience’ drops us off at an outer swim buoy and, stepping off the boat, Stephanie and I swim back to shore, drive back to the airport and I’m there with plenty of time before my Cape Air flight onto Key West. Sure beats hanging out at the airport newsstand for four hours.
A very seaweed approach to protecting the ocean environment is being carried out in Key West by DeeVon and Craig Quirolo and their many supporters. One-time charter-boat operators, they got tired of watching the reefs they loved damaged by anchors dropped on live coral. So 18 years ago they quit their business to form ‘Reef Relief’ and began setting out dive buoys for boats to tie off to, and educating divers not to touch the coral (which can kill it). Soon they realized there were other problems like polluted runoff and got the county to ban phosphate detergents. They helped establish the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, and more recently helped inspire the city of Key West to build a new sewage system that protects the reefs by stripping nutrients from its waste waters (corals like clear, low-nutrient waters). Today Craig runs the underwater research for their 5,000 plus member organization while DeeVon, as Executive Director (she also sits on the board of Blue Frontier), leads popular campaigns for reef protection that have spread from the Keys to the Bahamas, Cuba and other parts of the Caribbean.
Still not all’s well in the Keys. Going offshore with Craig to look for regrowth of Elkhorn coral in the badly damaged Eastern Dry Rock area is like looking for signs of life in a cemetery. Plenty of fish, but also lots of dead rock and diseased corals, also corals being eaten by marine snails. Normally lobster eat these snails, Craig explains, but the lobster are having a hard time of it because of all the lobster traps. Plus Reef Awareness Week is taking place the same time as Lobster “mini-season” in the Keys during which some 40,000 recreational lobster hunters hit the reef hard, each allowed to take six “bugs” a day off the reef. It makes you wonder what the term “Marine Sanctuary” actually means and what kind of lessons are being taught. “You do what you can, knowing its not enough, but if you can excite people about protecting this fantastic part of our ocean planet, maybe we can start to turn things around,” DeeVon hopes.
If you go to bluefront.org and click on the guide for Florida you’ll find listings and links to 144 seaweed groups like Reef Relief , Cry of the Water and Save Our Shoreline. Blue Frontier is now in the process of creating a more comprehensive that will appear as a book with Island Press next spring. Any suggestions for listings are welcome.