Strolling by the Hillsborough River on a lovely spring morning in 2010, I noticed a smell reminiscent of lacquer thinner. My first thought was that there was something in the river, but the same odor persisted in the oak and pinewoods far away where I later mountain biked.
Then the same scent was at my house when I got home.
This unpleasant stench could not possibly be (I rationalized) from the tremendous oil slick in the Gulf pouring from the BP oil well. That spill was three states to the west. Yet the next day The St. Petersburg Times reported that indeed the smell could have been from that unleashed crude oil.
Just how much oil was floating around in the Gulf? A lot. How much more oil will end up in the Gulf? More. When will it stop? No one is sure. Where will the oil end up? No one knows. Maybe here.
Not many of us can easily imagine how much oil is 3 million gallons (or more) – the count as of yesterday morning. But most Floridians are sure what our Gulf and beaches mean to us. We take our Gulf personal.
In 1950s, the Gulf was the place where my frugal family went for family fun. We lounged under the sun on beach blankets at the edge of our sea. My father and I swam in schools of fish. We fished off bridges and piers. Attired in flippers and a mask, I plucked sand dollars off the sandbars. At the beach, my mother took care of our thirst and fed us fried chicken kept cold in a plaid cooler. We didn’t have much then. But we had each other and the Gulf beaches.
Friends came with us to the beaches, including the family of my father’s partner in the stucco business. Relatives visited us there – my uncle and aunt and their three kids. People came down from Kentucky and New Jersey to visit us, and we took them to the beach. We took my grandfather Turner to the beach the last time I saw him.
In the 1960s, the Gulf beaches were where I took my first girlfriends. My generation of high school kids spooned on the beaches the way kids up north spoon when they go to the lake. There was nothing on Sand Key except wild vegetation, beach rabbits, rattlesnakes, birds, and spooning kids. Not a single condo towered there, and no bridge connected the wild island to Clearwater Beach. The wind blew through our hair. The surf pounded on the beach and our blood pounded in our ears while we learned to neck – and got in trouble, like all kids do.
My cousins and I fished in the Gulf and in the inlets near Clearwater. We could catch about a hundred fish in an hour. A mile out in the Gulf, we could fill Roger Mullock’s boat with fish in about the same time. Our families could eat fresh-caught fish until they came out of our ears (well, no, not literally, as you know that is anatomically impossible, but you get the idea). Admittedly, we were thoughtless then. The bounty seemed endless.
For Gulf Coast Floridians (and coastal residents all the way to Texas), the beaches and the Gulf, our sea, were and are a vital part of us - and our psych. The Gulf is Kerouac’s Void, in my mind, the Universe, or at least our part of the universe. We recreate in it. We pull fish from it. We contemplate it. We live, love, marry, and die beside it. Children are born near it. Some of our ashes go into it. We drive our boats on it. We kayak on it. If we are lucky enough to act like kids again, we float in it and still neck by it. It is part of our world – the reason we moved to Florida if we weren’t born here.
The Gulf and its beaches are more, of course. It is home to a fishing industry, and its shores stoke a powerful tourist industry, vital to our currently damaged local economy. And unfortunately it is a place where humans drill for oil.
When I vented my outrage recently to my email list about the oil outpouring in the Gulf, one response was that I should stop complaining, borrow a boat, and go salvage some oil. That doesn’t seem to me to be any more practical than my outraged suggestion of sending those in favor of drilling, like Marco Rubio, out to do the same.
But I do have some suggestions coming – coming soon, I promise.
Long before the oil from the B.P. well leaked a drop, our Gulf and its estuaries were already in a diminished condition. Our Gulf was already in trouble. Now it’s in bigger trouble.
Recently a good friend offered us her condominium on Indian Rocks Beach for a night. This is some of the beach I grew up and played on, and thus I was looking forward to digging coquinas from the sand and swimming through schools of fish and feeling a sand dollar underfoot.
No such luck. Not a single coquina and not too many fish. Not too many birds either. Not one live crab in sight. No sand dollars under foot. No starfish either. It felt like a big, warm salty bathtub. No sea grasses either. Who wants sea grass in their bathtub? It was a long way from what it had once been. It was pitiful.
In a previous marriage, I took a stepson to the same places where I fished with my cousins – and caught not one fish. Got not one bite. Saw no mullet jumping.
Now things are better in places. But the places I knew so well are not healthy any longer. They are almost devoid of the plentiful sea life that I experienced as a boy growing up in Pinellas.
In addition to destroying the natural vegetation to create room for condos, and dredging to keep the beaches from washing away – in addition to over fishing – the Gulf (our ocean) has a tremendous pollution problem - besides the massive amounts of crude oil the BP well is now spewing into it.
From every river along the Gulf coast pour thousands of tons of nitrogen annually. Nitrogen has a lot of beneficial uses in our world, but the effect on the estuaries and the Gulf is harm, not good. How I got to learn this would be a long story. It would involve measurements of our rivers under a program designed to measure pollution but not fix it. It would involve an article I worked hard on but for which I got no more than what is called a “kill fee.” It would involve wasting your time explaining how I found and read through massive and sleep-inducing (and costly!) reports from consultants hired to measure the pollution in the rivers for Florida’s DEP.
Forget that. I tried to.
I studied and wrote about the three national estuary programs on our west coast. These are commendable programs and very successful at improving the condition of Tampa and Sarasota bays and Charlotte Harbor. I did get paid for those articles, and I spent several months meeting people who care and do something good for our inlets and hence the Gulf – and knew a lot more than me. I know just enough to be dangerous.
In the inlets where the fish we eat spawn and on which shellfish and shrimp depend, the nitrogen at times causes algae blooms that shade out the sun to the sea grasses. No sun – the sea grasses die. Nitrogen enrichment, it should be noted, is but one of the reasons for the death of sea grasses, but it is probably the most important and the one we can do the most about. The result of less sea grass is less marine life. Less grass in the estuaries means less fish.
Estimates for Tampa Bay are that fifty percent of sea grasses have vanished since we started keeping records in the 1950s. It could be worse, and in some places it is worse.
In the ocean, the nitrogen contributes to so-called “dead-zones,” like the enormous area off the mouth of the Mississippi River. Dead-zones are great areas without sufficient oxygen to sustain sea life. The big one is off the Mississippi River. But there are smaller dead-zones.
Most marine scientists believe that the extra nitrogen enrichment increases the frequency and extent of red tide, which kills fish and drives away tourists. The enrichment is also the likely cause of the mysterious “black water” in the Gulf.
When too much nitrogen reaches the coral reefs off the Keys, it causes the corals to secrete a sort of biological defense shield. The corals can die from too much of defending themselves. They can die from other things also.
When the oil spoil is over, when the boats have gone home, and when drilling stops, our Gulf will be in worse shape, and it will still have the nitrogen problem.
Nitrogen pollution is more difficult to deal with. We can’t work ourselves into a rage and berate what “big oil” has done to our Gulf. It is a less visible, thus more insidious pollution, and coming from a variety of sources.
These are depressing times for the Gulf and for people who treasure it. It is difficult to sit night after night in front of the television and look at the ever-widening path of oil. But the nitrogen seeping into the Gulf goes on continually and is hardly noticed because it is largely invisible.
Feeling helpless is never fun. I would suggest that taking some action on behalf of the Gulf might make us feel we have some control over future events. It might even do some good.
Here are some things we could do to be kind to the Gulf.
1. Current efforts to limit fertilizers on lawns are praiseworthy and should be supported. Where does it all end up but in our storm water and in the Gulf as nitrogen (and a little phosphorous)?
2. Greater setbacks from our waterways and wetlands would help protect the Gulf. In Hillsborough County, my so-called “progressive” county, the setback is 25 feet – a little better than sticking a septic tank in the water, but not much better.
3. In an ideal world, development via septic tank would cease. Yes, septic tanks are safe for the environment – if people properly maintain them, which most don’t. Along Florida’s rivers sit subdivisions of homes made possible by the lack of municipal sewage and the septic tank. Septic tanks, of course, leak not only nitrogen, but human wastes as well - from the tank to the river, and from the river to the sea.
4, Agricultural interests along the rivers and waterways could contour and swale the land to keep nitrogen-rich irrigation waters out of waterways, until they filter through some soil, and consequently keep nitrogen out of the Gulf. There were some commendable efforts to encourage this, but they were far and few between, last I looked into it.
5. No one should be allowed to destroy more of Florida’s filtering wetlands for any purpose. Wetlands can be defended through local organizations that care about such issues, such as the Sierra Club. Unfortunately, these efforts involve slogging it out in permit wars.
6. It is my impossible hope that at least one (if not more) additional national estuary program be created for Florida. I believe Florida needs a Big Bend Natural Estuary Program to protect that pristine area. Any of you who have kayaked or fished the Big Bend know that it is almost like Pinellas County’s shoreline once was. Plans to dredge away large areas of sea grass to make more boating channels to make more developments to make more money have been narrowly defeated in the past.
No, I didn’t get in a boat, as my critic suggested, and go catch some oil instead of fish. But I did go to the Gulf Restoration Network and make a donation. You can contact them at www.healthygulf.org.
In addition, local groups are training people about how to prepare for the potential of oil-soaked wading and seabirds and what to do if the oil reaches the beaches. These local groups include Audubon chapters and organizations like Tampa Bay Watch. Join and support them, even if like me you are usually chained to a computer.