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Report card: Coastlines in trouble

A landmark report card on the nation’s coastlines found that they are deteriorating and can no longer fully support marine life or human activities.
Seen from a NASA satellite, the Mississippi River delta dumps fertlizers and manure from farms miles upstream into the Gulf of Mexico. The effluents contribute to the creation in summer of a "dead zone" as large as 7,000 square miles.
Seen from a NASA satellite, the Mississippi River delta dumps fertlizers and manure from farms miles upstream into the Gulf of Mexico. The effluents contribute to the creation in summer of a "dead zone" as large as 7,000 square miles.
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A landmark report card on the nation’s coastlines says they are deteriorating to the point that they can no longer fully support marine life or human activity. Overall, the report rates coastal conditions as fair to poor. The Gulf of Mexico area — with its vast “dead zone” — fared worst in the first-ever nationwide analysis by the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies.

“For the first time, researchers can compare the conditions of estuaries across the country,” according to a fact sheet issued along with the report.

Those conditions were described as “less than ideal.” Overall, the report said, coastal waters in the continental United States are in fair to poor condition, and 44 percent of U.S. estuary areas can’t fully support human activities or marine life.

The study defined an impaired body of water as one that does not fully support its designated use, such as recreation and swimming, a source of drinking water or habitat for aquatic life.

The Gulf of Mexico fared worst, in large part due to a long-known “dead zone” — an area that is uninhabitable in summer months due to a lack of oxygen. The area has nearly doubled in the last decade, and now includes as much as 7,000 square miles of the Gulf, one of the nation’s most productive and valuable fishing grounds.

The causes of the expanding dead zone appear tied to farm and livestock runoff from the Mississippi River; physical changes to the river, such as dredging and loss of natural wetlands and vegetation along the banks; and the interaction of the river’s freshwater with the Gulf’s saltwater.


The EPA said the findings provided it with a baseline for action.

“It took decades for the coasts to get this way and though progress has been made, there is much work still to do,” Robert Wayland, director of the EPA’s Office of Wetlands, Oceans & Watersheds, said in a statement.

“Virtually, the whole landscape of the United States drains into the coasts,” he said. “This report emphasizes the ecological and economical importance of these areas. We need to encourage efforts to protect the coasts by emphasizing watershed protection, restoring habitats, and reducing ... pollution.”

The findings echo a report last year by the independent Pew Oceans Commission, which cited runoff from farms and cities as a major problem.

“It’s generalized runoff from surface streets and agricultural areas that’s captured in watersheds and sent down to our coastal waters,” said Kathy Sullivan, a commission member and a past chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.


The new report rated estuaries in five regions: the Northeast, Southeast, Gulf of Mexico, West Coast and Great Lakes. Alaska and Hawaii were not included, the study said, due to a lack of quality data.

The study graded areas on seven factors as well as their overall ecological condition. Key findings:

Overall: Northeastern estuaries, the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes are in fair to poor ecological condition, while southeastern and West Coast estuaries were rated fair.

Water clarity: Rated good in West Coast and northeastern estuaries, but only fair in the Gulf of Mexico, southeastern estuaries and the Great Lakes. Clarity was based on how much light gets through water.

Dissolved oxygen: The amount of oxygen in coastal waters was described as generally good.

Coastal wetlands loss: The Gulf of Mexico, West Coast and Great Lakes rated poor, and the Southeast and Northeast fared only slightly better. Wetlands are critical for fish and birds, and they also filter waste, improving water quality.

Sediment contaminants: Conditions along coastal floors were found to be generally poor. Only the Southeast was rated fair.

Benthic condition: The worms, clams and crustaceans that live on coastal seafloors are known as benthos and play a key role in maintaining sediment and water quality. Conditions were poor in the Northeast, Gulf of Mexico and Great Lakes.

Fish contaminants: Chemicals absorbed by fish tend to remain in tissue and build up over time. The Northeast, Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes were rated poor. Fish consumption advisories exist throughout the Gulf of Mexico and northeastern coastal areas, the report noted, although these advisories largely pertain to offshore species such as king mackerel.

Eutrophic condition: This pertains to levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, two byproducts from farms. When levels are too high, excessive algae growth occurs, absorbing oxygen and choking marine life. The report found eutrophication is increasing throughout much of the United States. Conditions are poor in the Gulf of Mexico, West Coast and Northeast.


In a statement accompanying the report, the EPA cited several initiatives to improve coastal areas:

President Bush’s budget proposes $21 million in new funding for watershed protection.

The EPA has given grants to states to address bacterial contamination of bathing beaches.

A new Estuary Habitat Restoration Council aims to restore estuaries.

Federal agencies, states and tribes are working on an action plan to address the Gulf of Mexico’s “dead zone.”

The EPA is issuing technical guidance to improve the design and operation of septic systems to reduce bacterial contamination in coastal waters.

Those steps, however, fall short of a grander vision called for in the report.

“One of our greatest needs for the 21st century,” the report concluded, “is a coordinated comprehensive and integrated coastal monitoring program that examines all aspects” of coastal conditions.

Ted Morton, policy director for the American Oceans Campaign, agreed that more could be done. “We’ve done a very poor job of addressing pollution that comes from these more diverse sources” like farms and city streets.

Morton wants to see more tax dollars go to build ponds and streamside buffers that retain the pollutants from runoff, and points to Maryland as being a state leader on that front.

Sullivan expected that a Pew Oceans Commission report, due out later this year, would raise the bar even higher, calling for policymakers to develop a new mindset “about this link between our lands and our coastal areas.”

A former astronaut and the first American woman to walk in space, Sullivan saw that link firsthand from space. “We humans live on an ocean plant,” she said, “and we depend intimately on the heart beat and healthy functioning of our ocean ecosystem.”

The EPA report was developed in collaboration with NOAA, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The full National Coastal Condition Report is online at