By Kenneth R. Weiss, Times Staff Writer
July 30, 2006
A Primeval Tide of Toxins
Runoff from modern life is feeding an explosion of primitive
organisms. This 'rise of slime,' as one scientist calls
it, is killing larger species and sickening people.
MORETON BAY, AUSTRALIA -- The fireweed
began each spring as tufts of hairy growth and spread across
the seafloor fast enough to cover a football field in an
When fishermen touched it, their skin broke
out in searing welts. Their lips blistered and peeled. Their
eyes burned and swelled shut. Water that splashed from their
nets spread the inflammation to their legs and torsos.
"It comes up like little boils,"
said Randolph Van Dyk, a fisherman whose powerful legs are
pocked with scars. "At nighttime, you can feel them
burning. I tried everything to get rid of them. Nothing
As the weed blanketed miles of the bay
over the last decade, it stained fishing nets a dark purple
and left them coated with a powdery residue. When fishermen
tried to shake it off the webbing, their throats constricted
and they gasped for air.
After one man bit a fishing line in two,
his mouth and tongue swelled so badly that he couldn't eat
solid food for a week. Others made an even more painful
mistake, neglecting to wash the residue from their hands
before relieving themselves over the sides of their boats.
For a time, embarrassment kept them from
talking publicly about their condition. When they finally
did speak up, authorities dismissed their complaints —
until a bucket of the hairy weed made it to the University
of Queensland's marine botany lab.
Samples placed in a drying oven gave off
fumes so strong that professors and students ran out of
the building and into the street, choking and coughing.
Scientist Judith O'Neil put a tiny sample
under a microscope and peered at the long black filaments.
Consulting a botanical reference, she identified the weed
as a strain of cyanobacteria, an ancestor of modern-day
bacteria and algae that flourished 2.7 billion years ago.
O'Neil, a biological oceanographer, was
familiar with these ancient life forms, but had never seen
this particular kind before. What was it doing in Moreton
Bay? Why was it so toxic? Why was it growing so fast?
The venomous weed, known to scientists as Lyngbya majuscula,
has appeared in at least a dozen other places around the
globe. It is one of many symptoms of a virulent pox on the
In many places — the atolls of the
Pacific, the shrimp beds of the Eastern Seaboard, the fiords
of Norway — some of the most advanced forms of ocean
life are struggling to survive while the most primitive
are thriving and spreading. Fish, corals and marine mammals
are dying while algae, bacteria and jellyfish are growing
unchecked. Where this pattern is most pronounced, scientists
evoke a scenario of evolution running in reverse, returning
to the primeval seas of hundreds of millions of years ago.
Jeremy B.C. Jackson, a marine ecologist
and paleontologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography
in La Jolla, says we are witnessing "the rise of slime."
For many years, it was assumed that the
oceans were too vast for humanity to damage in any lasting
way. "Man marks the Earth with ruin," wrote the
19th century poet Lord Byron. "His control stops with
Even in modern times, when oil spills,
chemical discharges and other industrial accidents heightened
awareness of man's capacity to injure sea life, the damage
was often regarded as temporary.
But over time, the accumulation of environmental
pressures has altered the basic chemistry of the seas.
The causes are varied, but collectively
they have made the ocean more hospitable to primitive organisms
by putting too much food into the water.
Industrial society is overdosing the oceans
with basic nutrients — the nitrogen, carbon, iron
and phosphorous compounds that curl out of smokestacks and
tailpipes, wash into the sea from fertilized lawns and cropland,
seep out of septic tanks and gush from sewer pipes.
Modern industry and agriculture produce
more fixed nitrogen — fertilizer, essentially —
than all natural processes on land. Millions of tons of
carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide, produced by burning fossil
fuels, enter the ocean every day.
These pollutants feed excessive growth
of harmful algae and bacteria.
At the same time, overfishing and destruction
of wetlands have diminished the competing sea life and natural
buffers that once held the microbes and weeds in check.
The consequences are evident worldwide.
Off the coast of Sweden each summer, blooms
of cyanobacteria turn the Baltic Sea into a stinking, yellow-brown
slush that locals call "rhubarb soup." Dead fish
bob in the surf. If people get too close, their eyes burn
and they have trouble breathing.
On the southern coast of Maui in the Hawaiian
Islands, high tide leaves piles of green-brown algae that
smell so foul condominium owners have hired a tractor driver
to scrape them off the beach every morning.
On Florida's Gulf Coast, residents complain
that harmful algae blooms have become bigger, more frequent
and longer-lasting. Toxins from these red tides have killed
hundreds of sea mammals and caused emergency rooms to fill
up with coastal residents suffering respiratory distress.
North of Venice, Italy, a sticky mixture
of algae and bacteria collects on the Adriatic Sea in spring
and summer. This white mucus washes ashore, fouling beaches,
or congeals into submerged blobs, some bigger than a person.
Along the Spanish coast, jellyfish swarm
so thick that nets are strung to protect swimmers from their
Organisms such as the fireweed that torments
the fishermen of Moreton Bay have been around for eons.
They emerged from the primordial ooze and came to dominate
ancient oceans that were mostly lifeless. Over time, higher
forms of life gained supremacy. Now they are under siege.
Like other scientists, Jeremy Jackson,
63, was slow to perceive this latest shift in the biological
order. He has spent a good part of his professional life
underwater. Though he had seen firsthand that ocean habitats
were deteriorating, he believed in the resilience of the
seas, in their inexhaustible capacity to heal themselves.
Then came the hurricane season of 1980.
A Category 5 storm ripped through waters off the north coast
of Jamaica, where Jackson had been studying corals since
the late 1960s. A majestic stand of staghorn corals, known
as "the Haystacks," was turned into rubble.
Scientists gathered from around the world
to examine the damage. They wrote a paper predicting that
the corals would rebound quickly, as they had for thousands
"We were the best ecologists, working
on what was the best-studied coral reef in the world, and
we got it 100% wrong," Jackson recalled.
The vividly colored reef, which had nurtured
a wealth of fish species, never recovered.
"Why did I get it wrong?" Jackson
asked. He now sees that the quiet creep of environmental
decay, occurring largely unnoticed over many years, had
drastically altered the ocean.
As tourist resorts sprouted along the Jamaican
coast, sewage, fertilizer and other nutrients washed into
the sea. Overfishing removed most of the grazing fish that
kept algae under control. Warmer waters encouraged bacterial
growth and further stressed the corals.
For a time, these changes were masked by
algae-eating sea urchins. But when disease greatly reduced
their numbers, the reef was left defenseless. The corals
were soon smothered by a carpet of algae and bacteria. Today,
the reef is largely a boneyard of coral skeletons.
Many of the same forces have wiped out
80% of the corals in the Caribbean, despoiled two-thirds
of the estuaries in the United States and destroyed 75%
of California's kelp forests, once prime habitat for fish.
Jackson uses a homespun analogy to illustrate
what is happening. The world's 6 billion inhabitants, he
says, have failed to follow a homeowner's rule of thumb:
Be careful what you dump in the swimming pool, and make
sure the filter is working.
"We're pushing the oceans back to
the dawn of evolution," Jackson said, "a half-billion
years ago when the oceans were ruled by jellyfish and bacteria."
The 55-foot commercial trawler working the Georgia coast
sagged under the burden of a hefty catch. The cables pinged
and groaned as if about to snap.
Working the power winch, ropes and pulleys,
Grovea Simpson hoisted the net and its dripping catch over
the rear deck. With a tug on the trip-rope, the bulging
sack unleashed its massive load.
Plop. Splat. Whoosh. About 2,000 pounds
of cannonball jellyfish slopped onto the deck. The jiggling,
cantaloupe-size blobs ricocheted around the stern and slid
down an opening into the boat's ice-filled hold.
The deck was streaked with purple-brown
contrails of slimy residue; a stinging, ammonia-like odor
filled the air.
"That's the smell of money,"
Simpson said, all smiles at the haul. "Jellyballs are
thick today. Seven cents a pound. Yes, sir, we're making
Simpson would never eat a jellyfish. But
shrimp have grown scarce in these waters after decades of
intensive trawling. So during the winter months when jellyfish
swarm, he makes his living catching what he used to consider
a messy nuisance clogging his nets.
It's simple math. He can spend a week at
sea scraping the ocean bottom for shrimp and be lucky to
pocket $600 after paying for fuel, food, wages for crew
and the boat owner's cut.
Or, in a few hours of trawling for jellyfish,
he can fill up the hold, be back in port the same day and
clear twice as much. The jellyfish are processed at the
dock in Darien, Ga., and exported to China and Japan, where
spicy jellyfish salad and soup are delicacies.
"Easy money," Simpson said. "They
get so thick you can walk on them."
Jellyfish populations are growing because
they can. The fish that used to compete with them for food
have become scarce because of overfishing. The sea turtles
that once preyed on them are nearly gone. And the plankton
they love to eat are growing explosively.
As their traditional catch declines, fishermen
around the world now haul in 450,000 tons of jellyfish per
year, more than twice as much as a decade ago.
This is a logical step in a process that
Daniel Pauly, a fisheries scientist at the University of
British Columbia, calls "fishing down the food web."
Fishermen first went after the largest and most popular
fish, such as tuna, swordfish, cod and grouper. When those
stocks were depleted, they pursued other prey, often smaller
and lower on the food chain.
"We are eating bait and moving on
to jellyfish and plankton," Pauly said.
In California waters, for instance, three
of the top five commercial catches are not even fish. They
are squid, crabs and sea urchins.
This is what remains of California's historic
fishing industry, once known for the sardine fishery attached
to Monterey's Cannery Row and the world's largest tuna fleet,
based in San Diego, which brought American kitchens StarKist,
Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea.
Overfishing began centuries ago but accelerated
dramatically after World War II, when new technologies armed
industrial fleets with sonar, satellite data and global
positioning systems, allowing them to track schools of fish
and find their most remote habitats.
The result is that the population of big
fish has declined by 90% over the last 50 years.
It's reached the point that the world's
fishermen, though more numerous, working harder and sailing
farther than ever, are catching fewer fish. The global catch
has been declining since the late 1980s, an analysis by
Pauly and colleague Reg Watson showed.
The reduction isn't readily apparent in
the fish markets of wealthy countries, where people are
willing to pay high prices for exotic fare from distant
oceans — slimeheads caught off New Zealand and marketed
as orange roughy, or Patagonian toothfish, renamed Chilean
sea bass. Now, both of those fish are becoming scarce.
Fish farming also exacts a toll. To feed
the farmed stocks, menhaden, sardines and anchovies are
harvested in great quantities, ground up and processed into
Dense schools of these small fish once
swam the world's estuaries and coastal waters, inhaling
plankton like swarming clouds of silvery vacuum cleaners.
Maryland's Chesapeake Bay, the nation's largest estuary,
used to be clear, its waters filtered every three days by
piles of oysters so numerous that their reefs posed a hazard
to navigation. All this has changed.
There and in many other places, bacteria
and algae run wild in the absence of the many mouths that
once ate them. As the depletion of fish allows the lowest
forms of life to run rampant, said Pauly, it is "transforming
the oceans into a microbial soup."
Jellyfish are flourishing in the soup,
demonstrating their ability to adapt to wholesale changes
— including the growing human appetite for them. Jellyfish
have been around, after all, at least 500 million years,
longer than most marine animals.
In the Black Sea, an Atlantic comb jelly
carried in the ballast water of a ship from the East Coast
of the United States took over waters saturated with farm
runoff. Free of predators, the jellies gorged on plankton
and fish larvae, depleting the fisheries on which the Russian
and Turkish fleets depend. The plague subsided only with
the accidental importation of another predatory jellyfish
that ate the comb jellies.
Federal scientists tallied a tenfold increase
in jellies in the Bering Sea in the 1990s. They were so
thick off the Alaskan Peninsula that fishermen nicknamed
it the Slime Bank. Researchers have found teeming swarms
of jellyfish off Georges Bank in New England and the coast
of Namibia, in the fiords of Norway and in the Gulf of Mexico.
Also proliferating is the giant nomurai found off Japan,
a jellyfish the size of a washing machine.
Most jellies are smaller than a fist, but
their sheer numbers have gummed up fishing nets, forced
the shutdown of power plants by clogging intake pipes, stranded
cruise liners and disrupted operations of the world's largest
aircraft carrier, the Ronald Reagan.
Of the 2,000 or so identified jellyfish
species, only about 10 are commercially harvested. The largest
fisheries are off China and other Asian nations. New ones
are springing up in Australia, the United States, England,
Namibia, Turkey and Canada as fishermen look for ways to
stay in business.
Pauly, 60, predicts that future generations will see nothing
odd or unappetizing about a plateful of these gelatinous
"My kids," Pauly said, "will
tell their children: Eat your jellyfish."
The dark water spun to the surface like an undersea cyclone.
From 80 feet below, the swirling mixture of partially treated
sewage spewed from a 5-foot-wide pipe off the coast of Hollywood,
Fla., dubbed the "poop chute" by divers and fishermen.
Fish swarmed at the mouth — blue
tangs and chubs competing for particles in the wastewater.
Marine ecologist Brian Lapointe and research
assistant Rex "Chip" Baumberger, wearing wetsuits
and breathing air from scuba tanks, swam to the base of
the murky funnel cloud to collect samples. The effluent
meets state and federal standards but is still rich in nitrogen,
phosphorous and other nutrients.
By Lapointe's calculations, every day about
a billion gallons of sewage in South Florida are pumped
offshore or into underground aquifers that seep into the
ocean. The wastewater feeds a green tide of algae and bacteria
that is helping to wipe out the remnants of Florida's 220
miles of coral, the world's third largest barrier reef.
In addition, fertilizer washes off sugar
cane fields, livestock compounds and citrus farms into Florida
"You can see the murky green water,
the green pea soup loaded with organic matter," said
Lapointe, a marine biologist at Harbor Branch Oceanographic
Institution in Fort Pierce, Fla. "All that stuff feeds
the algae and bacterial diseases that are attacking corals."
Government officials thought they were
helping in the early 1990s when they released fresh water
that had been held back by dikes and pumps for years. They
were responding to the recommendations of scientists who,
at the time, blamed the decline of ocean habitats on hypersalinity
— excessively salty seawater.
The fresh water, laced with farm runoff
rich in nitrogen and other nutrients, turned Florida's gin-clear
waters cloudy. Seaweed grew fat and bushy.
It was a fatal blow for many struggling
corals, delicate animals that evolved to thrive in clear,
nutrient-poor saltwater. So many have been lost that federal
officials in May added what were once the two most dominant
types — elkhorn and staghorn corals — to the
list of species threatened with extinction. Officials estimate
that 97% of them are gone.
Sewage and farm runoff kill corals in various
Algae blooms deny them sunlight essential
for their survival.
The nutrients in sewage and fertilizer
make bacteria grow wildly atop corals, consuming oxygen
and suffocating the animals within.
A strain of bacteria found in human intestines,
Serratia marcescens, has been linked to white pox disease,
one of a host of infectious ailments that have swept through
coral reefs in the Florida Keys and elsewhere.
The germ appears to come from leaky septic
tanks, cesspits and other sources of sewage that have multiplied
as the Keys have grown from a collection of fishing villages
to a stretch of bustling communities with 80,000 year-round
residents and 4 million visitors a year.
Scientists discovered the link by knocking
on doors of Keys residents, asking to use their bathrooms.
They flushed bacteria marked with tracers down toilets and
found them in nearby ocean waters in as little as three
Nearly everything in the Keys seems to
be sprouting green growths, even an underwater sculpture
known as Christ of the Abyss, placed in the waters off Key
Largo in the mid-1960s as an attraction for divers and snorkelers.
Dive-shop operators scrub the bronze statue with wire brushes
from time to time, but they have trouble keeping up with
Lapointe began monitoring algae at Looe
Key in 1982. He picked the spot, a 90-minute drive south
of Key Largo, because its clear waters, colorful reef and
abundance of fish made it a favorite site for scuba divers.
Today, the corals are in ruins, smothered by mats of algae.
Although coral reefs cover less than 1%
of the ocean floor, they are home to at least 2 million
species, or about 25% of all marine life. They provide nurseries
for fish and protect oceanfront homes from waves and storm
Looe Key was once a sandy shoal fringed by coral. The Key
has now slipped below the water's surface, a disappearing
act likely to be repeated elsewhere in these waters as pounding
waves breach dying reefs. Scientists predict that the Keys
ultimately will have to be surrounded by sea walls as ocean
With a gentle kick of his fins through
murky green water, Lapointe maneuvered around a coral mound
that resembled the intricate, folded pattern of a brain.
Except that this brain was being eroded by the coralline
equivalent of flesh-eating disease.
"It rips my heart out," Lapointe
said. "It's like coming home and seeing burglars have
ransacked your house, and everything you cherished is gone."
The ancient seas contained large areas with little or no
oxygen — anoxic and hypoxic zones that could never
have supported sea life as we know it. It was a time when
bacteria and jellyfish ruled.
Nancy Rabalais, executive director of the
Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, has spent most
of her career peering into waters that resemble those of
the distant past.
On research dives off the Louisiana coast,
she has seen cottony white bacteria coating the seafloor.
The sulfurous smell of rotten eggs, from a gas produced
by the microbes, has seeped into her mask. The bottom is
littered with the ghostly silhouettes of dead crabs, sea
stars and other animals.
The cause of death is decaying algae. Fed
by millions of tons of fertilizer, human and animal waste,
and other farm runoff racing down the Mississippi River,
tiny marine plants run riot, die and drift to the bottom.
Bacteria then take over. In the process of breaking down
the plant matter, they suck the oxygen out of seawater,
leaving little or none for fish or other marine life.
Years ago, Rabalais popularized a term
for this broad area off the Louisiana coast: the "dead
zone." In fact, dead zones aren't really dead. They
are teeming with life — most of it bacteria and other
ancient creatures that evolved in an ocean without oxygen
and that need little to survive.
"There are tons and tons of bacteria
that live in dead zones," Rabalais said. "You
see this white snot-looking stuff all over the bottom."
Other primitive life thrives too. A few
worms do well, and jellyfish feast on the banquet of algae
The dead zone off Louisiana, the second
largest after one in the Baltic Sea, is a testament to the
unintended consequences of manufacturing nitrogen fertilizer
on a giant scale to support American agriculture. The runoff
from Midwestern farms is part of a slurry of wastewater
that flows down the Mississippi, which drains 40% of the
continental United States.
The same forces at work in the mouth of
the Mississippi have helped create 150 dead zones around
the world, including parts of the Chesapeake Bay and waters
off the Oregon and Washington coasts.
About half of the Earth's landscape has
been altered by deforestation, farming and development,
which has increased the volume of runoff and nutrient-rich
Most of the planet's salt marshes and mangrove
forests, which serve as a filter between land and sea, have
vanished with coastal development. Half of the world's population
lives in coastal regions, which add an average of 2,000
homes each day.
Global warming adds to the stress. A reduced
snowpack from higher temperatures is accelerating river
discharges and thus plankton blooms. The oceans have warmed
slightly — 1 degree on average in the last century.
Warmer waters speed microbial growth.
Robert Diaz, a professor at the Virginia
Institute of Marine Science, has been tracking the spread
of low-oxygen zones. He has determined that the number is
nearly doubling every decade, fed by a worldwide cascade
of nutrients — or as he puts it, energy. We stoke
the ocean with energy streaming off the land, he said, and
with no clear pathways up the food chain, this energy fuels
an explosion of microbial growth.
These microbes have been barely noticeable
for millions of years, tucked away like the pilot light
on a gas stove.
"Now," Diaz said, "the stove
has been turned on."
In Australia, fishermen noticed the fireweed around the
time much of Moreton Bay started turning a dirty, tea-water
brown after every rain. The wild growth smothered the bay's
northern sea-grass beds, once full of fish and shellfish,
under a blanket a yard thick.
The older, bottom layers of weed turned
grayish-white and started to decay. Bacteria, feeding on
the rot, sucked all of the oxygen from beneath this woolly
layer at night. Most sea life swam or scuttled away; some
suffocated. Fishermen's catches plummeted.
Most disturbing were the rashes, an outbreak
often met with scoffs from local authorities.
After suffering painful skin lesions, fisherman
Greg Savige took a sealed bag of the weed in 2000 to Barry
Carbon, then director-general of the Queensland Environmental
Protection Agency. He warned Carbon to be careful with it,
as it was "toxic stuff." Carbon replied that he
knew all about cyanobacteria from western Australian waters
and that there was nothing to worry about.
Then he opened the bag and held it close
to his face for a sniff.
"It was like smearing hot mustard
on the lips," the chastened official recalled.
Aboriginal fishermen had spotted the weed
in small patches years earlier, but it had moved into new
parts of the bay and was growing like never before.
Each spring, Lyngbya bursts forth from
spores on the seafloor and spreads in dark green-and-black
dreadlocks. It flourishes for months before retreating into
the muck. Scientists say it produces more than 100 toxins,
probably as a defense mechanism.
At its peak in summer, the weed now covers
as much as 30 square miles of Moreton Bay, an estuary roughly
the size of San Francisco Bay. In one seven-week period,
its expansion was measured at about 100 square meters a
minute — a football field in an hour.
William Dennison, then director of the
University of Queensland botany lab, couldn't believe it
"We checked this 20 times. It was
mind-boggling. It was like 'The Blob,' " Dennison said,
recalling the 1950s horror movie about an alien life form
that consumed everything in its path.
Suspecting that nutrients from partially
treated sewage might be the culprit, another Queensland
University scientist, Peter Bell, collected some wastewater
and put it in a beaker with a pinch of Lyngbya. The weed
As Brisbane and the surrounding area became
the fastest growing region in Australia, millions of gallons
of partially treated sewage gushed from 30 wastewater treatment
plants into the bay and its tributary rivers.
Officials upgraded the sewage plants to
remove nitrogen from the wastewater, but it did not stop
the growth of the infernal weed.
Researchers began looking for other sources
of Lyngbya's nutrients, and are now investigating whether
iron and possibly phosphorous are being freed from soil
as forests of eucalyptus and other native trees are cleared
for farming and development.
"We know the human factor is responsible.
We just have to figure out what it is," Dennison said.
Recently, Lyngbya has appeared up the coast
from Moreton Bay, on the Great Barrier Reef, where helicopters
bring tourists to a heart-shaped coral outcropping. When
the helicopters depart, seabirds roost on the landing platform,
fertilizing the reef with their droppings. Lyngbya now beards
the surrounding corals.
"Lyngbya has lots of tricks,"
said scientist Judith O'Neil. "That's why it's been
around for 3 billion years."
It can pull nitrogen out of the air and
make its own fertilizer. It uses a different spectrum of
sunlight than algae do, so it can thrive even in murky waters.
Perhaps its most diabolical trick is its ability to feed
on itself. When it dies and decays, it releases its own
nitrogen and phosphorous into the water, spurring another
generation of growth.
"Once it gets going, it's able to
sustain itself," O'Neil said.
Ron Johnstone, a University of Queensland
researcher, recently experienced Lyngbya's fire. He was
studying whether iron and phosphorous in bay sediments contribute
to the blooms, and he accidentally came in contact with
bits of the weed. He broke out in rashes and boils, and
needed a cortisone shot to ease the inflammation.
"It covered my whole chest and neck,"
he said. "We've just ordered complete containment suits
so we can roll in it."
Fishermen say they cannot afford such pricey
equipment. Nor would it be practical. For some, the only
solution is to turn away from the sea.
Lifelong fisherman Mike Tanner, 50, stays
off the water at least four months each year to avoid contact
with the weed. It's an agreement he struck with his wife,
who was appalled by his blisters and worried about the long-term
"When he came home with rash all over
his body," Sandra Tanner said, "I said, 'No, you
are not going.' We didn't know what was happening to him."
Tanner, a burly, bearded man, is frustrated
that he cannot help provide for his family. Gloves and other
waterproof gear failed to protect him.
"It's like acid," Tanner said.
"I couldn't believe it. It kept pulling the skin off."
Before the Lyngbya outbreak, 40 commercial
shrimp trawlers and crab boats worked these waters. Now
there are six, and several of them sit idle during fireweed
"It's the only thing that can beat
us," Greg Savige said. "Wind is nothing. Waves,
nothing. It's the only thing that can make us stop work.
When you've got sores and the skin peels away, what are
you going to do?"
Times staff writer Usha Lee McFarling contributed to
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