Ocean concerns rising

With a 1,300-mile coastline, Florida is more tied to the sea than any other state except Alaska. Nowhere in this state is more than 60 miles from salt water. But amid growing alarm about the condition of the world’s oceans, some Florida legislators fear the state isn’t doing enough to preserve its defining feature.

They’re pushing to convene a group of scientists and others to suggest research priorities and better ways to protect and restore Florida’s seas and shores.

The proposals (HB 1627, SB 1670), which have surfed through several committee votes, differ somewhat in their details. But both aim for a sweeping and scientific look at the state of the seas off Florida, from the river water that flows into them to fish populations offshore. Both also seek wide-ranging, but specific, advice on how to address what the research finds.

“We need to take a holistic approach to what we do in the state of Florida that affects our oceans,” said state Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, who is steering the proposal in the Senate. “This [proposal] would start to bring us the science, so when we are initiating legislation … we’ll have the science before us.”

Several studies in recent years have warned that there’s no time to waste. The nation’s oceans and Great Lakes beaches were closed or posted with warnings 18,000 times in 2003, mostly because of bacteria commonly linked to sewage spills, according to a report by a presidential study commission last fall. Every summer, pollution creates a dead zone the size of Massachusetts in the Gulf of Mexico, according to a study for the Pew Charitable Trusts in 2003. And the nonprofit World Resources Institute has found that the amount of live coral covering reefs in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary plunged by 38 percent just between 1996 and 1999.

There’s no need to tell Brian La Pointe. As an oceanographer who studies South Florida’s coastal reefs, he has seen the change firsthand.

“To see something that’s thousands of years old collapse in a matter of years, and to know that we humans are doing it, is a pretty sobering reality,” says La Pointe, a researcher at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Fort Pierce.

For Florida and other coastal states, the ocean isn’t just an environmental asset. Florida’s commercial fishing fleet brought in $180 million worth of seafood in 2002, according to the state Bureau of Seafood and Aquaculture Marketing. Recreational boating employs 110,000 in Broward County and about 7,000 in Palm Beach County, according to a 2001 study for the Marine Industries Association of Florida.

“Those of us who make our living from or recreate on our oceans are concerned about the future, and there’s not enough research that’s currently done,” says Frank Herhold, who runs the marine industries group’s branch in Fort Lauderdale.

Florida has embarked on ocean initiatives before, including a $1 million research, restoration and environmental-education project that Gov. Jeb Bush launched last year. But environmental experts say the current proposals would mark a new focus on prioritizing and coordinating research, as well as rising momentum for ocean preservation.

President Bush appointed a high-level group of ocean-policy advisers in December. Florida legislators pushing the cause of ocean conservation include Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, who is expected to become Senate president in 2006. He’s among the backers of the current proposals for a statewide ocean-research group, along with Dockery, Rep. Donna Clarke, R-Sarasota, and Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Wilton Manors.

“This is getting all the pieces in place to make [ocean preservation] a priority for the Legislature,” said Pruitt, who represents part of Palm Beach County.

By Jennifer Peltz

Tallahassee Bureau