My husband grew up in Miami and was always on the water, whether diving, fishing or sailing. As a young man, he made frequent diving trips to the Keys and has vivid memories of the healthy reefs and abundant marine life. His life goal was to live in the Keys and nine years ago, that finally happened when we moved to the Lower Keys.
Last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which manages the co-manages the Keys coral reef system known as the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, issued its "Condition Report 2011". One of its conclusions is that the reef faces many pressures on its water quality.
The pollutants and contaminants from inadequate sewage and wastewater treatment systems, along with rainfall runoff that carries fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides, chemicals, oil and other hazardous liquids into the ground water, are contributing factors. These and other reasons compromise the water quality and the health of the reef.
Yes, my husband has seen dramatic changes in the reefs he has known since the early 1970s. He remembers seeing vast acreage of coral full of vibrant color and teeming with marine life, where there are now areas of barren rocks smothered with algae. But a passionate free-diver, he still finds beautiful areas where the fish are thriving and the reef is healthy, and it continues to amaze him.
I am not a diver but am conscious of how contaminated water can affect the reef. So in our yard, I grow native plants that need no fertilizers or pesticides, use organic compost for the raised-bed vegetable garden, and drop off our hazardous waste at the waste transfer station in Cudjoe Key.
Trash that makes its way into the ocean is a huge problem and degrades the water quality. Some of it is wind-blown, flushed via storm drains, accidentally dropped or abandoned, and some is deliberately tossed into the water. All of it makes up marine debris. It can kill marine animals and sea birds, damage coral reefs and contaminate our shorelines.
As much as 90 percent of floating marine debris may be plastic. Plastic products have risen from 1.5 million tons in 1950 to 130 million tons in 2009 annually. One study found 35 percent of plankton-eating fish have ingested small fragments of plastic they mistake for food when feeding.
As overwhelming as this problem may seem, marine debris is an issue we can all do something about. Dispose of your waste responsibly when eating out, visiting parks, beaches and on the water. Keep your household trash bin covered to stop items flying out on windy days or when the raccoons knock it over.
Nov. 15 is America Recycles Day as declared by the National Recycling Coalition. Monroe County organizes several community cleanup days in recognition of the day -- one takes place today on Big Coppitt Key -- and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary's Team OCEAN program welcomes volunteers to join its beach cleanups. In 2010, Team OCEAN staff and volunteers collected more than 10,000 pounds of marine debris. To learn more about Team OCEAN, visit www.floridakeys.noaa.gov.
Reducing disposable, one-time-only plastic bottles, food containers and bags can also go a long way to reducing marine debris and, at the same time, conserves the oil and energy used to produce them. Recycling is good, reducing waste is better. Everyday actions like this can make a big difference and help protect the coral reef system, one of the Keys most loved natural resources.
Shirley Gun is a member of the Keyswide nonprofit Green Living and Energy Education. She writes about green living and the four Rs -- reducing, reusing, recycling and rot (composting). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.