It certainly has been an interesting couple of weeks. I have not been in the water as much as Id like, so instead I dove into some science stuff to get a better picture of the state of the Keys and the issues we face as we move forward with the Marine Zoning & Regulatory Review process.
Yes, thats a mouthful... and a headful, too.
I feel like the new kid in school, walking down a crowded hallway surrounded by all the smart kids. And then I drop my armload of books, with pencils, notebooks, test tubes and my slide rule (is there such a thing anymore?) flying all over the place. But the good part of this daydream is the kids are helping me pick up the pieces, and were getting everything back in the right folders. I even got my pocket protector back.
And to top it off, my brain just got saturated with endocrine disrupters. No, not some trekkie Klingon gizmo, but real substances in real places. Namely, our marine ecosystem.
I had heard of endocrine disrupters (EDs) before, but never really understood the extent of the problem. ED is a great moniker. I am, of course, referring to all the TV commercials with a guy and a gal wanting to, well, you know the deal. This is a family newspaper.
My friend and emeritus scientist, Martin Moe, taught me about EDs this week. You can get his full perspective in an article he published in the Jan./Feb. 2012 issue of Coral Magazine. Google the magazine, and select the pages you want to download so you dont have to download the entire issue. Or email me and I will send it to you.
His work on EDs came about as a tangent to his work with Diadema sea urchins. Long time residents of the Keys remember the die-off in the mid 1980s, and Martin has been trying to find a viable way to bring them back.
Martin calls EDs stealth pollution. These substances interact with normal biological functions. They disrupt the process. Even in very low concentrations parts per million, even trillion or less for some of them EDs affect reproduction and early development. Some EDs affect males, some females and some affect both.
Some of them do not degrade in the ecosystem, but accumulate over time.
According to Martin, many of them are considered to be pseudo persistent in that they degrade. But since we keep adding them all the time, their activity is actually persistent in the environment even if they do eventually break down..
Thats the real difficulty with EDs. They are piling up and wreaking havoc with fish and invertebrate populations.
To my mind, that is another impediment for sustainable ecosystem management. Its difficult enough for scientists to gather the required information for effective decision making as it is. The visible spectrum, if you will, is all the science we have using all the available parameters and measurements. EDs are largely the invisible spectrum comprised of many natural and synthetic compounds that have not been adequately catalogued, and most likely not measured. There are over 800 commonly used chemicals that find their way into our environment that are known endocrine disruptors.
Not only do EDS affect the reproductive cycle in breeding populations, but eggs and larvae cannot develop properly. In a lot of cases, critical life cycle stages are hindered or stopped. Molting, embryonic development and metamorphosis are all affected. The tragic piece of that scenario is we will never know the extent of damage to a population until after the fact. The true damage to the food chain is the reduction in plankton, which in turn reduces recruitment and sustainability for an affected species. EDs are the abortion clinics of the sea.
Of particular interest and something we can do something about is plastic. Martin said in his lecture that plastics dont get wet. Some of them dont fall apart in the marine environment. But, as Martin said, many of them do fall apart in the marine environment and become tiny and even microscopic pieces. The surfaces of the pieces accumulate water borne chemicals thousands of times higher in concentrations than when they are free in the water. These higher concentrations are transferred to the organisms that ingest the plastic particles.
So when you pick up that piece of plastic from the shore or waterway, you are doing more than that. You are helping stop the accumulation of EDs. Every little bit does help.
Perhaps one of the closest-to-home indicators of EDs in nearshore waters is the work on queen conch by Robert Glazer of the Florida Wildlife Research Institute. We will examine this in more detail at a later date. Suffice it to say, the findings on reproduction and embryonic development for nearshore queen conch is not a pretty picture.
Studying EDs is going to be an increasingly important field, particularly for the marine sanctuarys nearshore areas. Based on what I have seen so far, we simply dont know what we dont know. This is a critical issue and demands a fervent research effort several orders of magnitude over what is currently being done.
New instruments, new techniques, a database of the stealth compounds, along with public education and legal consequences for introducing EDs into the ecosystem are important aspects of stopping the accumulation of EDs. We will never get rid of what is already there. How much more will we add?
Tim Grollimund is a freelance photographer and PADI divemaster based in Key Largo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his web site at www.timgimages.com. Tim is a member of the Ecosystem Protection Working Group for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.