Black Water

Precht, Bill Bprecht at
Tue Mar 19 15:55:57 EST 2002

Dear Coral-List:

A.G.Mayor (1902) reported a phenomenon referred to as "black water" that
nearly eliminated all the staghorn corals (Acropora cervicornis) at
Loggerhead Key in the Dry Tortugas, Florida in 1878.  I bring this
to the attention of the coral-list because of a moving area of "black
that is presently being observed in the Gulf of Mexico off the southwest
coast of Florida.  I have attached clips and pieces of recent news
highlights regarding this ongoing event below.  To those working on
reefs of
Florida this will be interesting to follow.



William F. Precht
ecological sciences Program Manager

see  AG Mayor (1902) The Tortugas as a station for research in biology.
Science 17:190-192
Scientists intrigued by mysterious 'black water' phenomenon; collection
samples to begin today

Tuesday, March 19, 2002   Naples Daily News

By CATHY ZOLLO, crzollo at

MARATHON KEY - Scientists, environmentalists and fishermen agreed Monday
that there needs to be aggressive research into what caused the black
phenomenon over recent months in the Gulf of Mexico.

Researchers for Mote Marine Laboratory and Florida Keys National Marine
Sanctuary will try today to collect samples of the water that's been
in some areas of the Keys. Mote will send the samples to Florida Marine
Research Institute for testing.

Fishermen who've spent a lifetime on the water say they've never seen
anything like the black mass of water that is now breaking up in the
and churning waters where the gulf meets the Atlantic.

Most of the mass, which was first discovered south of Marco Island and
heading south en masse, has dissipated in recent days, fishermen report.

"It's still in the islands, still in the water. It's just mixed," said
Daniels, 58, and a fourth generation Keys fisherman.

Now they say they're worried about what the fallout from its passage
sensitive habitat will be.

Others wonder if they might be seeing some of its effects already.

Since January when fishermen first noticed the black water, volunteers
researchers at Hidden Harbor Marine Environmental Project in Marathon
say they've seen five turtles come in with unexplained pneumonia.

The hospital takes in distressed and dying sea turtles, rehabilitates
and then releases them into the wild when that is possible.

Oddly, the turtles seem only to have eaten sea sponges even though their
diet is much more varied, said Richie Moretti, director of the project.

"It's like there's nothing else out there for them to eat," said Sue
animal and education coordinator for the project.

Fishermen noted that rafts of dead plants from the seabed followed the
water's movement through Florida Bay and into the Keys. They find the
of habitat troubling,

"You change the cycle of something in nature, and that's not good," said
Rich Stiglitz, 48, who has been fishing the Keys since 1969.

He and other fishermen have been watching the results of one imbalance
has left them with vast numbers of sea urchins chewing up sea grass and
leaving no habitat for marine life behind. Researchers don't know what's
causing the sea urchin boom.

That phenomenon, growing in scope for more than a decade, is slowly
over Florida Bay, Daniels said.

Dr. Ellen Prager, associate dean of the Rosenstiel School of Marine and
Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami, traveled to the Keys on
Monday to have a look for herself and said fishermen's descriptions of
water sound like some kind of algae or bacteria bloom.

"Different organisms can create different blooms in different ways in
different colors," Prager said.

And this bloom, if that's what it is, could be the ocean-going
equivalent of
a 100 years flood, said Dr. Charles Messing, a professor and marine
biologist from Nova Southeastern University.

"It may be something we've never seen before," he said.

That a bloom might move south from the Naples area and down through the
was not unusual, said Brian Keller, science coordinator for the Keys
Sanctuary, but he said the black water is, and it has their interest.

"At this stage, we just don't have a good idea of the source of the
he said. Its collection and testing is the beginning.

Hindering the search for a cause will be the many factors at play in the
gulf at the time the phenomenon showed up, Messing said.

Those variables include the temperature, salinity and chemical
of the water and how it was moving.

Environmentalists in the Keys said with one voice that more money needs
go into funding research.

"We never have enough money," said Nancy Klingenger, Florida Keys
manager for the Ocean Conservancy. "Ocean ecosystems are so complex.
It's so
difficult to learn about them."

Other environmentalists also said the public should demand funding for
research, but DeeVon Quirolo, executive director of Reef Relief, a
grass-roots organization dedicated to protecting coral reefs, said
governments already know some of what they need to do, but the impetus
to do
it must come from public outcry.

"We do know that the amount of pollution that is increasing in our
needs to be reduced so we can have healthy, clean oceans. Policy-makers
to take steps."

Fishermen aren't optimistic that a solution is on the horizon. They've
reporting to scientists and government agencies for years about urchins
gobbling up the sea grass habitat only to be told it's being studied.

Part of the problem, Daniels said, is the lack of communication between
fishermen and the people who study the oceans.

"They don't want that tag on their work," he said, "that commercial
fishermen helped them."

Editorial: Experts should urgently plunge into 'black water'

Tuesday, March 19, 2002

The Naples Daily News

Experts should urgently plunge into 'black water'

Black water.

Most of us have never heard of it. Of more concern, supposed scientific
experts from public agencies who are supposed to keep abreast of such
phenomenon, do not know what is going on.

Now that it has been on the front page - ours, on Sunday - environmental
public health agencies will be hard pressed to ignore a huge patch of
Gulf of Mexico between Collier County and the Florida Keys where fish
other wildlife have been dying off for months. Until now, concerns of
commercial fisherman, some of whom have reported strange and serious
diseases, have been easy to cast aside because they lack a big, powerful

Answers are of extra urgency due to today's headlines about national
security. A spate of red tides and the idea of a marine counterpart to a
black hole in space imperiling underwater sanctuaries prompt additional
public interest.

Answers are in order. Given all the bureaucratic firepower lined up for
jobs, newly alerted experts ought to leap into action.

Commercial fishermen demand answers to 'black water' mystery

Sunday, March 17, 2002    Naples Daily News

By CATHY ZOLLO, crzollo at

Commercial fishermen along the Southwest Florida coast are reporting a
massive dead zone that is almost devoid of marine life in an area of the
Gulf of Mexico traditionally known as a rich fishing ground.

They've dubbed it black water, and they're demanding that local, state
national government agencies find out what's causing it.

Scientists who have heard of the phenomenon say they, too, need answers.

"It's killed a lot of the bottom because recently a lot of little bottom
plants are coming to the surface dead and rotten out in the Gulf," said
Daniels, 58, a Marathon Key fish-spotting pilot who has been flying over
Gulf for more than 20 years.

Like Daniels, fishermen with decades on the water say they've often seen
tide but they've never seen anything like this - it doesn't have a foul
smell, it isn't red tide and it isn't oil. They describe it as viscous
slimy water with what looks like spider webs in it.

First sighted in January, the mass of black-colored water reached from
miles north of Marathon Key halfway to Naples. It stretched west almost
miles into the Gulf of Mexico. Fishermen don't know if it's moved in
the north or offshore or if it originated in the coastal waters off
Southwest Florida.

Though somewhat smaller now than descriptions from January, the mass of
water that is still quite large is moving into the Florida Keys National
Marine Sanctuary.

Created by Congress in 1990, the 2,800-square-mile Sanctuary adjacent to
Keys is the largest coral reef in the United States. It includes the
productive waters of Florida Bay, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic

Part of the ecosystem is an extensive nursery, feeding and breeding
that supports a variety of marine species and a multimillion-dollar
industry that brings in almost 20 million pounds of seafood each year.

Billy Causey, superintendent of the Sanctuary, told the Naples Daily
recently that there is real concern in the scientific community about
overall health of the Gulf.

Causey said contributing to the problems afflicting the shallow body is
global warming, extended periods when the Gulf waters aren't cooling in
winter, and the growing impact of human activity along coastlines.

"What we're seeing is part of a bigger picture," Causey said. "We're
accelerated problems around periods of elevated temperatures."

Those problems, beginning in the early 1980s, include more frequent and
longer lasting coral bleaching events that by 1990 were affecting
coral reefs closer to shore and more adapted to wide temperature swings.

"There are places that are still beautiful but the shallow reefs would
you cry," said Causey, a Keys diver since the 1950s.

Scientists with Mote Marine Laboratory based in Sarasota said they are
of the black water phenomenon but hadn't yet been able to test water

Erich Bartels, staff biologist at the Lab's Center for Tropical Research
the Keys, said he'd only seen samples too old for testing that were
in by crabbers.

"If you held it up to the light, it had a blackish tint to it," he said.
"...If you have black water, there is something going on. It's some kind
dead zone. We just don't know. We're trying to get samples."

Mote is willing to send out testing kits to fishermen who might
the black water zone, but Bartels said in the absence of a kit,
could put a sample in a clean bottle and keep it in a cool, dark place
they could get it to a lab.

Karen Steidinger, senior biology research scientist for the Florida
Research Institute in St. Petersburg, said she hadn't yet heard about
phenomenon. She said there's a summer release of brown water from the
River about 35 miles south of Marco Island, but she doubted the black
was that. The description relayed to her from fishermen didn't allow her
speculate on a cause.

Steidinger said samples of the water that had been properly handled
provide the best answer.

Black water surfaces

Daniels said he first noticed the black water when he went out in
mid-January, ahead of kingfish season, to see what fishermen had in
for 2002.

When he was flying over water that was 50 feet deep and north of the
Daniels began to notice a change in the water color.

"I thought, 'What in the world is going on here?"' Daniels said. "I went
to the northwest and it was solid black. And I went to the west to get
of it - out to 70 or 80 feet of water north of the Marquesas (Islands) -
it was still there. I came back in and turned north of Key West and it
north. (More than) halfway to Naples from Key West, it was black across
whole place."

Although there are almost no fish in the zone, Daniels said, the few
fishermen found there - and other fish that entered the water - reacted

"You'd see them here and there, but they were jumping and running, not
stopping - and acting different," Daniels said. "Like they didn't want
to be

Other pilots and fishermen report the same.

Mike Richardson, based out of Everglades City, has been fish-spotting
for 25
of his 50 years and said next to the normally green water, the black
stands out like night versus day.

He's quit flying over it.

"There's no sense going into it," he said. "You can't see anything."

He hasn't seen dead fish in the water, though there have been numerous
fish kills in recent months off Southwest Florida. Most, according to
Florida Marine Research Institute, have been attributed to red tide - a
naturally occurring microscopic organism in the water.

Fishermen like Howie Grimm, 42, who has been in the business out of
Everglades City since he was 15, insist the black water isn't red tide.

"It's something totally different from anything I've seen," Grimm said.
have to figure out what it is. There's no fish in it. It's like dead

Richardson, too, has seen plenty of red tide, whose origins are still
fully understood by scientists.

"This is not like anything I've ever seen," he said.

When pilots from the air see boats move through a red tide zone, they
cut the reddish or brownish water to reveal green below.

That doesn't occur in the black water.

"This (dark) stuff goes all the way to the bottom," Richardson said.

Boats that have 4 to 5 feet of hull below the surface cut through 35 to
feet of water and leave nothing but the same black water in their wakes.
It's the same at depths of 15 feet, he said.

"It didn't matter where they ran through it, nothing left a trail,"
Richardson said.

Grimm has reported the phenomenon to officials from the National Oceanic
Atmospheric Administration, but said he hasn't heard back yet.

That it's affected the fishery, commercial fishermen have no doubt.

"I've net-fished for mackerel all my life," Daniels said. "This is the
year that we haven't caught one Spanish mackerel in the Marathon area.
They're not there."

The southeast corner of Florida Bay, an area flushed by Atlantic waters,
the only place fishermen are catching mackerel, and they're doing it
hooks and lines, he said.

Symptoms of a sick Gulf?

Along with the newly discovered black water and coral bleaching, there
been other problems with the Gulf that have been documented for years.

They include a New Jersey-sized dead zone coming off the Mississippi
outlet to the Gulf that consumes a larger area each summer.

There are incidences of a contamination known as fibro papiloma in green
turtles that live in Florida Bay.

And now fishermen from Fort Myers Beach to the Keys wonder if there
might be
new problems to worry about.

They said there have been bigger fish kills that aren't making it onto
government reports. The largest, many say, occurred late last year about
miles off Tampa Bay. It had shrimpers pulling up netloads of dead and
decaying fish off the bottom, they said.

Some shrimpers based on Fort Myers Beach worry that a recent and
slew of flesh-destroying infections they've seen among their number may
related to problems in the Gulf.

The infection is diagnosed as cellulitis in three of their medical
They say it begins with a blister on the skin but swells to a large
before it erupts and then spreads. It can only be treated with stout

It was mentioned by fisherman David Wellsley on CenterPoint, a 7 a.m.
radio talk show hosted by Gary Burris and Ralf Brooks on WNOG-AM 1200
1270. Dan Basta, director of the National Marine Sanctuary program, will
the guest today, along with pilot Daniels, discussing the black water
phenomenon as well as other problems with the Gulf.

Two of the Fort Myers Beach fishermen who suffered the infections are
Flanaghan, who nearly lost his foot, and Willie Sherwood. They work for
different fleets; both run out of Fort Myers Beach.

Both of them and others say there is fear among laborers in their line
work about the infection that seems to follow cuts doused with waters
the Gulf.

Many report taking precautions such as bleaching their gear and washing
with heavy-duty anti-bacterial soap after pulling in their nets.

The fishermen contend it's a new phenomenon. But some boat owners and
health officials speculated that the fishermen's compromising way of
life -
the drinking, long-term exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays and weeks
sea when they are never dry - is the culprit for their infections.

The men won't lie about their lifestyles. They admit living from
paycheck to
paycheck, partying and drinking - then cleaning up for the most part
they're at sea.

They call it coming off the hill. They'll work for 20 days or more
fish - and then spend the money they earn in a few days ashore.

But they also say folks in their line of work have been doing that for
decades without the fear of this sort of infection.

Ray Hoggard, 49, is among the many who say the infection is a hot topic.

"It's common talk on the ship-to-ship radios," he said.

A few times in recent weeks, boats have had to bring in for treatment
men who were stricken.

"It's a hell of a coincidence or something's up," Hoggard said.

Grant Erickson, 48, owner of Fort Myers' Erickson and Jensen Seafood,
has a
fleet of eight boats. He said he, too, hadn't seen the likes of these
infections in the business that his family has been in for a

"It seems like there's something on the bottom ... these boats (nets)
the bottom," he said. "I don't think it's the lifestyle of the fishermen
that's changed. If anything it's better than years past. There's nothing
except the infections."

Dr. Mark Brown, an infectious disease specialist in Naples, said without
seeing and testing the infections there is no way to identify the
or organisms that caused them.

He said the next logical step would be for someone to do an
study of the fishermen to compare them to a control group to find out
causing the infections.

Unless doctors are culturing the bug to see what it is, they may never
out, Brown said.

"They need to find out if they all have the same bug," Brown said.
going to have to try harder to make a microbiological diagnosis of what
is causing this. . . They may not even be looking."

Health officials from Lee County, where the affected fisherman are
said they investigate any of more than 70 communicable diseases and any
health-related occurrence.

"We need to gather a lot of information," said Dr. Judith Hartner,
of the Lee County Health Department. "The first step is somebody needs
report it."

Three doctors who've seen the affected men said they didn't culture the
organism that caused the infection.

Brown said the symptoms of the infection - the swelling, fast pace and
flesh-destroying nature as reported by the fishermen - sounds like
vulnificus, a common seagoing organism. However, he didn't speculate on
or if it might be on the rise among fishermen.

According to a Johns Hopkins University Web site, the bug frequents
where the water temperature remains high throughout the year and are
abundant in summer. The infection progresses at a rapid pace and can be

Hartner said her agency needs to answer a number of questions before
deciding if the infections warrant investigation.

"Do the fishermen think it's unusual?" she asked. "If we do an
and we find out the cause, is there anything we can do to prevent it? We
don't know that it's on the rise. It could be coincidence."
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