Climate Action

All drains lead to the ocean

“All drains lead to the ocean.” (Gill- Finding Nemo)

To a small clownfish, this meant an escape from a glass prison. To an environmentalist, it is a significant part of the reason that our coral reefs are dying. In a recent Rollins College and University of Georgia collaborative study, scientists found that white pox, a disease that has been plaguing coral reefs, in particular the Caribbean Elkhorn coral is derived from human waste, proving that wastewater is a source of the disease. This is groundbreaking in the scientific community because it is the first proven example of the transmission of a human disease to a marine invertebrate.

Scientists are making sure that this does not go unnoticed. “These findings underscore the interaction between public health practices and environmental health indices such as coral reef survival.” The article authors go further, stating, “Human culpability in the demise of a threatened species necessitates an immediate response and supports ongoing mitigation to improve wastewater treatment in the Florida Keys, and elsewhere, in order to protect the health and biodiversity of coral reef ecosystems.”

In Australia, Latin American and the Caribbean (including the United States), marine outfalls are used to dispose of wastewater. Marine outfalls are pipes that discharge wastewater directly into the ocean, after only basic or no treatment. The idea is that the ocean is large enough that the dispersing will make the impact negligible. We are seeing that the ocean can not absorb the pollution that we put into it. Not only are we seeing beaches closed due to high bacterial counts, like last year in Florida, we are seeing that our wastewater is affecting one of the “most critically endangered habitats on earth.”

Florida has started to take steps to reduce its impact. In 2008, the state legislature passed a law that set a time table for a reduction in marine outfalls as well as prohibiting the expansion of the program. This also pushed for improvements in the sewage treatment technology in south Florida and the Florida keys. "It was great to see then Governor Charlie Christ take the opportunity to sign that law into effect … very near where the outfalls were operating. But many wondered why it would take many years to phase out the discharging, when most other countries have stopped outfalls near coral reefs many years ago." said Dr. Dave Vaughan, Coral Reef Research Director at the Mote Marine Laboratory in the Florida Keys.

A few Florida lawmakers recently attempted to move back compliance deadlines but fortunately with $25 billionin state revenue and more than 500,000 ocean dependent jobs riding on the continued health of the coral reefs, the effort was beaten back. ( Unfortunately, many local communities are struggling to meet the deadlines.

"It is obvious, that we have to improve our waste water quality as is done in ‘advanced waste water treatment’ and not continue ocean outfalls or septic systems near our coral reefs.” said Vaughan. The only thing that should be using drains as a means to escape is clean water, so we can ensure that as many coral reef inhabitants can “just keep swimming.”