As a kid I surfed almost every day – rain or shine, surf or no surf. I progressed from mat surfing (there were no boogie boards back then) to body surfing and ultimately board surfing. Just being in the ocean was a joy: I mat surfed beachbreaks on summer south swells, tucked into Black’s barrels with only fins and a wetsuit, and surfed Pleasure Point at speeds that made the surfboard’s fin hum.
Forty years later I surf much less, but not because I’m more discriminating or jaded. No, it’s a matter of knowing too much in an increasingly polluted world. Where I used to surf 12 months a year, rain or shine, today I make the most of the fall days with glassy head-high surf. When the rains come in January, my surfing stops until the rains stop. We’ve all seen the water-quality reports and the off-the-charts fecal coliform counts and known friends who got a stomach or sinus bug when they surfed too soon after a storm.
But if you think it’s bad in the lineup for you, consider the animals. You might suffer a sore throat and a stuffed-up nose or a case of the runs after surfing your home break, but it’s far worse for the organisms that live there 24/7.
Surfers on the central California coast might not notice it, but sea otters are taking a hit. After a high in 1995, the otter population dipped 10 percent to a low in 2002 and then slowly rebounded. But of the otters washed up dead on the beach, a higher percentage are dying from disease rather than other causes. In a 2002 study conducted by a team at UC Davis, researchers think they found the main culprit: the Toxoplasma gondii that plagues cats. “We think that the eggs from the parasites in cat waste may get transported to the ocean from fields and yards by surface runoff after storms ...” concludes Melissa Miller, the study’s lead author. The parasite kills otters by causing brain infections that result in seizures and paralysis and interferes with the otters’ feeding – a far cry from an ear infection, a common cold or the runs.
In Kaneohe Bay, O`ahu, where turtles and surfers coexist in polluted waters, the green turtles have been developing fibropapillomatosis (FP). FP is a disease that riddles turtles with multiple fibrous tumors, both internally and externally. What is unusual about FP is that it is the first recorded pandemic in a species other than humans. The disease is associated with human viruses, heavily polluted coastal waters, agricultural runoff, biotoxin-producing algae and areas of high human density. It was first reported in the late ‘30s in Florida but now has reached epidemic proportions around the world. Like sea otters, sea turtles are already at risk of going extinct. FP is also reported in loggerhead, olive ridley, Kemp’s ridley and flatback turtles. If left untreated (read surgically removed), the tumors result in death by hindering the turtle’s ability to see, swim and feed. Once the tumors become internal, there is no treatment.
Surfers on the Outer Banks know all about the danger in the estuaries of North Carolina. Pfiesteria piscicida, a dinoflagellate, is killing fish and causing more than sore throats and colds in humans. It can rapidly change itself, acting like a mild-mannered dinoflagellate feeding on algae and other tiny organisms one moment, and then transforming into an “ambush predator” when a school of fish swims by. It gives chase, stuns the fish with a neurotoxin, and secretes a compound that causes hemorrhaging lesions to form on the skin. It then turns into a carnivore and starts devouring the fish’s deeper tissues. P. piscicida was responsible for the massive fish kills in the 1990s in North Carolina and Maryland estuaries. The dinoflagellate has been linked to untreated sewage from hog farms. And this is where it gets personal for surfers: P. piscicida has been implicated in lesions, respiratory distress and neurological symptoms (like memory loss) in humans.
The outbreaks in North Carolina are just the tip of the iceberg in “an apparent global epidemic of novel phytoplankton blooms,” according to Theodore Smayda, a leading expert on the subject. Most of these algal blooms – called red tides – are naturally occurring, but humans are exacerbating the rate and severity of the blooms. Nutrient enrichment from pollution and agricultural runoff, changes in sea temperature from global warming, and the transport of invasive algae in the ballast water of ships all contribute to the problem.
No one knows this better than Southern California surfers who witnessed a summer of epic red tides in 2005. They have also seen the dead and rotting, or seizure-ridden and dying, seals and dolphins on the beach caused by domoic acid, a naturally occurring toxin produced by a particular form of red tide that has been intensified by nutrient enrichment. The neurotoxin concentrates up the food chain from baitfish all the way to marine mammals and seabirds. Once the neurotoxin reaches high-enough concentrations, it ultimately results in death.
I might surf less these days because I know more than when I was a kid, but I also know what to do about the problem. Although it might seem too big to tackle, the solutions are there; all it takes is the right choices in our day-to-day lives. Buy organic food and fibers to help eliminate chemical fertilizers that contribute to nutrient enrichment of coastal waters. Pick up after your pet and don’t let leaves, yard waste, motor oil or cleaners get in the street gutter – everything that goes in the gutters ends up in the ocean. Fight developers who want to fill in wetlands that act as natural water filters. Write your representatives to beef up sewage treatment facilities and strengthen the Clean Water Act. We can clean up our oceans; it’s just a matter of knowledge and action.