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Sea grasses vanish, marine life in peril


Between untangling gill nets and wrestling wooden boxes of flounder and turbot onto the dock, Derc Brunon tells his story -- more and more the story of fishermen all around Europe and the world.

His is the last of 15 boats that once fished from this harbor. He used to make a day's work in sight of his little village of Swarzewo, just down the Baltic Sea coast. But now he makes a four-hour round trip to his nets in open waters. If he can hang on a few more years, he'll retire.

As recently as 1985, fishermen in some of the small towns along Puck Bay could support a family for a month from one catch of yard-long pike, a prized sport and commercial species that inhabited the clear shallows in the bay's beds of eelgrass.

But now, the pike and grass beds are mostly gone, and mats of dense algae favored by sticklebacks, a worthless species, have replaced the eelgrass.

The reasons for this in Puck Bay are multiple and complex, but around the Baltic and the world one connection is strong: Because of an oversupply of nitrogen contaminating coastal waters, the underwater grasses and seaweed that populated an estimated 150 million acres of the planet's coastal shallows are disappearing on a massive scale.

And when the grasses go, so do clear water and fertile seafood nurseries -- an underwater world so bursting with life that scientists sometimes compare the sea grasses to rain forests.

From Cape Cod and the Chesapeake Bay to Scandinavia and the Netherlands, the rapid demise of these rich, submerged jungles has often been a classic case of out of sight, out of mind.

Imagine, by contrast, the worldwide alarm if huge swaths of the planet's most stately and productive forests -- habitats for astounding varieties of bird and animal life -- had lost half their trees, or in some cases disappeared entirely.

Overall sea grass losses are probably "higher than present rates of loss of tropical forests," which are down 20 percent in just the past few decades, says a 1996 survey by Spanish scientist Carlos Duarte and Carina Chiscano, a University of Maryland researcher now in private industry.

Like forests on land, the submerged grasses are habitat for a stunning variety of species. In Maryland, it's easy to see what's at stake.

Go out "scraping" through any of the Chesapeake Bay's remaining grass beds with a soft crabber, and watch the thigh-thick rolls of green eelgrass and widgeon grass come up in the mesh bags of his dredges.

These grasses literally quiver with the life they shelter -- the young of shrimp, striped bass, white perch, speckled trout, flounder, red drum, seahorses and dozens of other species, as well as the blue crabs seeking protection in the beds to mate and shed their shells. In winter, swans from Alaska, ducks from Saskatchewan and geese from Labrador all converge on the bay to feed on the grasses and their starchy roots.

Or a continent away, look down into waters along the seacoasts of Sweden at the branched forests of bladder wrack, a tree-like, yard-high seaweed. It reproduces each year only about 8 p.m. on the full and new moons in May and June, for reasons that remain a mystery.

Bladder wrack might live decades, or even a century, providing a rare, stable environment in open waters for a huge variety of sea life and a physical structure upon which spawning fish hang their eggs to develop. "Our rain forest," European ecologists sometimes call it.

But algae mats and blue mussels now often cover the hard sea bottom to which young bladder wrack needs to attach to grow. And in some places a small marine animal, once kept in check by predator fish that live in bladder wrack, now eats the seaweed faster than it can grow.

The long-lived bladder wrack might be like an impressive, ancient forest that has no young trees coming along, worries Swedish marine ecologist Lena Kautsky. "It might be decades before the bladder wrack dies," she says, "but when it does, there could be a crash."

Blocked light

Underwater vegetation not only provides critical habitats for sea life but also regulates the marine environment. It slows the flow of water, settling out sediment, and absorbs nutrients, making water clearer and cleaner. It also dampens wave energy, reducing shoreline erosion, and helps offset global warming by absorbing surprisingly large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere.

But these underwater forests have an Achilles' heel: To grow, they need light. And that light is reduced when blooms of algae cloud coastal waters.

Scientists estimate that such blooms, fueled by excess nitrogen and other nutrients, are the dominant reason sea grasses have disappeared in recent decades. Compounding the problem, nutrient-enriched waters also grow algal slimes that coat the underwater grasses, further blocking their light.

Even scientists who specialize in studying underwater grasses don't know how much existed when coastal waters were clearer. Documented losses, worldwide, are thus put at a mere 225,000 acres. But in the Chesapeake Bay, aerial photos taken as far back as the 1930s show that losses there alone might have been two to three times that figure.

In the Baltic, where light now penetrates 10 feet less into the water than it did a half-century ago, half the bladder wrack is believed to be gone, based on areas of the Swedish coast where a scientist-diver made careful measurements beginning in the 1940s.

Most coastal bays along the Gulf of Mexico are estimated to have lost 20 percent to 100 percent of their grasses in the past 50 years, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Similar losses are reported along Dutch waters of the North Sea and the coastlines of Scandinavia.

On a car trip, it's hard to reconcile the vista of Sweden's west coast with the idea of a degraded environment. The rocky, forested cliffs that plunge to a blue sea stippled with picturesque islands are deeply indented with fjords. The scene evokes the best of California's Big Sur and the Maine coast.

But below the surface, traditional sea grasses have been disappearing. And places that used to have open, sandy bottoms are choked with algae, depriving young cod of critical foraging areas.

Swedish fisheries scientists suspect the smothered bottoms and loss of traditional sea grasses are to blame for an enormous decline in cod along their west coast.

"We saw the shift since the 1970s, when there were just a few areas, and now it's very general. We estimate [algae] are covering up to half the nursery area," says Leif Pihl, a researcher at Sweden's Kristineberg Marine Laboratory, up the coast from Gothenberg.

Rutger Rosenberg, a fellow Kristineberg scientist who grew up on Sweden's west coast, says that in areas where he used to swim, "I have seen the algae so thick you couldn't make your way through it."

Septic seepage

The troubles in Europe are not too surprising to marine ecologists, given the levels of nitrogen pollution there. But in Falmouth, Mass., at the southwestern edge of Cape Cod, two scientists have shown that even low levels of nitrogen pollution can have serious consequences for underwater grasses.

The western shore of Falmouth's Waquoit Bay looks like a New England Eden, where shingled cottages line a sandy shoreline and yachts float at anchor beside spartan workboats. But beneath the green-tinged water, an unseen annihilation of a precious resource is under way.

In the early 1950s, Waquoit Bay was a lush eelgrass meadow, the source for most of the Cape's harvest of succulent, high-priced bay scallops. Young flounder, tomcod, bluefish, herring and mullet hid from predators in the grass. In winter, the surface was thick with sea birds, and in spring and fall migrating plovers, sandpipers, willets and terns stopped to fatten on small fish.

But postwar prosperity brought swarms of cottages thick as mosquitos, and in 1965 the bay grasses began to disappear -- crowded out by tumbleweed-like clumps of algae.

"The eelgrass, because of the way it grows, is like a condo," says Margaret A. Geist, executive director of the Association for the Preservation of Cape Cod. "Everything lives there -- some on the top floors, some on the middle floors, some on the bottom. Whereas the algae are just a noxious environment where nothing can live."

The grasses that once blanketed almost 2 square miles of bay bottom now total less than an acre. The scallop harvest has fallen from 9,000 bushels a year to less than 10 bushels, says Falmouth shellfish constable Paul Montague. Local fishermen "all look, but most of them give up pretty quickly -- usually the same day they start," Montague says.

The grass is dying because of a slow seep of nitrogen from the septic tanks of 4,000 homes, according to Boston University ecologist Ivan Valiela. The most developed parts of Waquoit Bay have more than 330 times as much nitrogen as the least developed.

And some creatures, those that rely most heavily on the bay's grasses, are disappearing. In the most polluted areas, ecologist Linda Deegan found less than one-tenth the number of young fish she counted in a pristine section of the bay.

Deegan, who works at the Marine Biological Laboratory in nearby Woods Hole, has found similar declines in 30 other nitrogen-polluted estuaries along the East Coast, including the Chesapeake Bay's York and Rappahannock rivers. More ominous, she has found a large part of the decline sets in even before grasses disappear.

"We're seeing large changes in the abilities of these habitats to support fish at relatively low levels" of nitrogen overload, Deegan says. "We're seeing it in Massachusetts, Virginia, Florida, Texas, Long Island -- it's a pretty prevalent pattern.

"The big drop occurs early on. Long before this habitat disappears, its ability to support fisheries has disappeared. It's still mapped as an eelgrass bed, but it's not working as one."

That could be bad news for places like the Chesapeake. It's a sign that the road to recovery might be far longer and more arduous than most bay policy-makers suspect.

And says Valiela, "It raises the question, is this the fate of all the coastlines of the world? I think it's unrealistic to think we could stop it. There's simply too many people. The power of numbers is inexorable. What we're engaged in here is the best we can do, trying to slow it down as much as possible."

Reversing the damage is even more uncertain. Years of intense efforts to cut nitrogen and phosphorus flowing into the Chesapeake have halted the decline of the bay's sea grasses, but there's been no bay-wide comeback.

As Spanish scientist Duarte put it: "Unfortunately, sea grass recovery is a very slow, decades-to-centuries process, and man-made restoration efforts are just too costly."

Haves and have-nots

The consensus among scientists and environmental managers is that nitrogen pollution across much of the world is going to get worse before it gets better. Driven by increases in fertilizer and fossil fuel use, the release of nitrogen to the environment is expected to double in the next 25 years.

Reining in this pollution will involve considerably more than just technological fixes to cars and sewage plants or modifications to agriculture. The issue is also highly political -- involving tensions between the world's haves and have-nots.

The Baltic Sea is a prime example. The lands of its watershed drain nitrogen from a region that includes prosperous Sweden and Finland, along with struggling Russia and Poland.

From the headquarters of the International Helsinki Commission -- a group that monitors the Baltic environment -- Tapani Kohonen summarizes the region's essential dilemma: "Poland wants to reach our standard of living in Finland and Sweden. And if all 40 million Poles manage to live the way we live, well, goodbye Baltic."

Kohonen, until recently the executive secretary of the commission, is speaking of agriculture: Scandinavians employ some of the most sophisticated farming techniques, while Poles struggle to afford such basics as fertilizer. It's a foregone conclusion that Poland's 2 million farms, many tiny and subsistence-level, must become bigger, more modern and more productive as the country gets its house in order for admission to the European Union.

But world-class agricultural productivity in Sweden, Germany and Denmark is already pumping too much nitrogen into the Baltic.

Agriculture is not the only cause of the nitrogen pollution killing the Baltic's sea grasses. Sewage, airborne nitrogen from automobiles and factories and excess phosphorus fertilizer also play roles. But the nitrogen that leaks from farming is the largest source, and the most difficult to control.

Sweden, for example, has worked as hard as any country in the world since the mid-1980s to cut its fertilizer pollution in half. It planned to do so by 1995. But Swedish agricultural scientists now say they aren't even halfway toward that goal and don't think they can get there without profound changes in farming.

And even if they and other Baltic nations do achieve their goals, the key to the Baltic's future lies in Poland, which contains 41 percent of the 176,000 square miles of agricultural lands in the sea's drainage and half the region's 80 million people. Sweden, by contrast, is just 7 percent of the farmland in the watershed.

In the short term in Poland, fertilizer use and manure from large-scale animal facilities actually have declined as the result of economic problems in the wake of the fall of communism.

But nitrogen entering the Baltic from Poland's big rivers, the Vistula and the Oder, has risen from 104,000 tons in 1990 to more than 200,000 tons annually in recent years, because of heavy rainfalls and vast amounts stored in soils and ground water from decades past.

And Polish fertilizer use seems certain to rise.

"Farmers all want more land and they all want more fertilizer," says Andrzej Hornowski, a Polish agricultural official whose office deals with 27,000 farms around the rich farmland region of Torun. "They feel it is the only way they will be able to compete economically" with farmers in other European nations.

Poland decides

If Poland has a chance to emulate the agricultural success of its more advanced Baltic neighbors -- without emulating their pollution -- it might lie with a handful of farms in the rich soils around the village of Matszyce, such as the 65 acres where Wieslaw Gutmanski raises grain, cattle and pigs.

Over steaming mugs of tea in their farmhouse kitchen, Gutmanski, 32, and his wife, Marianna, fire questions about free markets and farming in the United States. As Poland emerges from decades of communism, they're already expanding and modernizing their farming operation.

But remarkably, Gutmanski says he wouldn't buy more commercial fertilizer even if he could afford it. As one of several farmers in projects funded by Sweden, Poland and the United States, he's begun to store his animals' manure and to substitute it for the nitrogen fertilizer he used to purchase.

He's installed a concrete holding pad and a covered holding tank to keep the manure out of the air and water and to let him wait until it is the proper time of year before spreading it on his crops. He has cut his commercial fertilizer purchases by 40 percent to 50 percent.

The Gutmanskis are intrigued that only in the past decade or less have American farmers begun to count the fertilizer in their farms' manure as nutrients. Many in the United States still spread manure to be rid of it, then buy a full complement of commercial fertilizer, just as the Poles do.

Among Polish farmers, environmental awareness of conserving and managing nitrogen is growing, the Gutmanskis say. But unless farming becomes more profitable, even installing a concrete manure holding pad is beyond many farmers' ability to afford.

Polish agriculture "is between systems -- communism fading, European Union coming," says Tomasz Zakrezewski, a nearby farmer who also has put in manure holding facilities. "The only rule in Polish agriculture right now is 'do what you can do.'"

Big money is coming to the Polish countryside soon in the form of a $500 million World Bank program aimed at modernizing rural life, including agriculture. Meanwhile, the Polish government has no policy in place on agriculture and the environment, farm experts agree.

An example is a recent State of the Environment report from the Polish government that says agricultural fertilizers and chemicals "do not result in any essential and commonly occurring hazard."

"The decision-makers don't believe a problem exists, so they have no long-range vision," says Andrzej Sapek, a leading Polish researcher on farming and the environment.

And with a quarter of its population in farming regions -- and no jobs or housing for them in cities -- Poland must reckon with the social consequences of farming more efficiently, with far fewer people on the land.

So whether Polish agriculture will head in a direction compatible with good water quality is far from certain. But for the Baltic's submerged seaweed forests, and the many species that depend upon them, this much is clear:

"Poland decides our fate," says Lars Kristofferson, head of the World Wildlife Fund's Swedish division. "What they do with their agriculture will be the key to the Baltic's future."


Sunday: Environmental devastation is mounting worldwide from an explosion in man-made nitrogen that has thrown the planet's chemistry out of whack.

Yesterday: The Mississippi basin is a study in nitrogen fertilizer's costs and benefits: It's made at polluting plants in Louisiana, barged to the Midwest where it helps feed the world, and quickly seeps back down the river, creating a huge zone of dead water in the Gulf of Mexico.

Today: Largely unseen, big swaths of the world's underwater grasses, critical incubators for sea life, have vanished in a few decades at rates even faster than the losses of the world's tropical rain forests -- and too much nitrogen in the water is the leading cause.

Tomorrow: China, feeding a fifth of the world's population with relatively slim resources, is in a bind: Unless officials summon the political will to limit fertilizer use and fish farming, lethal and costly blooms of algae will become even more frequent in Asian waters.

Thursday: The glut of nitrogen overdosing the planet is apt to get much worse because of population growth and prosperity -- without major changes in the way the world consumes.

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