KEY WEST, FLA. — Adrift off the indigo edge of the Gulf Stream, fisherman Jim Cass squints at a distant group of tourists as they spill from a dive boat into the warm waters off Key West.
"They have no idea they're snorkeling over dead corals," Mr. Cass says with a mirthless smile. "The whole reef's dying. What used to be big, colorful coral heads are now white blobs."
The reef is the Keys' most treasured possession - a stunning necklace of craggy coral stretching 220 miles from the coast of Florida toward Cuba. It is also a mecca for divers and tourists.
So even here, where laid-back is a way of life, a sense of urgency pervades the move to save the reef from further damage. Almost everyone agrees action must be taken. The problem is, few agree on what should be done.
Now, in a test of federal-local relations, lawmakers will begin deciding this week how best to preserve the underwater jewel in a move that could hold implications for other offshore preservation efforts across the country.
Back in 1990, Congress created the 2,800-square-nautical-mile Florida Keys National Maritime Sanctuary to help protect the besieged reef. Six years later, the sanctuary is ready to be implemented but is currently on hold as locals - ever-wary of federal meddling - worry about losing too much control.
Today, the Florida legislature will begin picking apart the plan Congress laid out for the sanctuary - deciding what role each party will play in the administration of the new sanctuary.
It is an issue that divides the south Florida community, but many who line up against it point to the sanctuary's convoluted three-volume, 850-page management plan as the rub.
Rep. Peter Deutsch (D) of Florida - a long-time sanctuary proponent - said his support hinged on the will of the people. On Nov. 5, 54.5 percent of the people voted against the plan in a nonbinding referendum designed to find out how much support the sanctuary had. After Nov. 5, Mr. Deutsch said he could not support the sanctuary as planned.
The big fear is that the plan gives too much power to the federal government. Most notably, it gives the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) a good deal of control over the local fishing industry and the sanctuary superintendent sweeping powers, which would allow him to close down any or all of the sanctuary for a 60-day period - a move that could throw the local economy into chaos.
But there are strong points to the plan, too. Most important, says sanctuary superintendent Billy Causey, is its water-quality protection plan, which will bring federal, state, and local funding.
"Our coral reef is the crown jewel of our waters, and without federal funds I don't know how we will preserve it," Mr. Causey says.
The reef's primary enemies are new and virulent coral-killing bacteria and algae most probably fed by nitrates and phosphates that leach from Key West's sewage plant - which does not strip nutrients - and an estimated 11,000 illegal cesspits.
Craig Quirolo, founder of the 10-year-old grass-roots organization Reef Relief, has conducted a photo-monitoring of corals for the past five years and first noticed two new coral diseases this summer, as well as a mysterious, land-based fungus that is eating through sea fans.
"I no longer swim on the reef without a fully protective wet suit," Mr. Quirolo says, referring to the sewage plant, the illegal cesspits, and the increasing number of boats that dump raw sewage into nearshore waters.
The second major cause of damage is physical, and here Cass and other fishermen point to the dive industry. The sanctuary plan would establish 18 sanctuary preservation areas - commonly called "no-take zones." Divers, whose industry many fishermen believe to be allied with the sanctuary, are allowed to use the zones.
"If they're so concerned about the reef, how can they permit 300 to 500 people to jump out on the reef every day?" says Cass. "Most of them [on large dive boats] are greenhorns who don't know the first thing about how fragile corals are. They stand on them and break them."
People in the dive industry, like 22-year Keys resident and dive operator Vicki Weeks, retort that overfishing, not physical damage, is more pressing. Ms. Weeks says her assessment after 5,000 dives on the reef is that fish populations are declining and the sanctuary is needed.
Others believe that the solution lies not in changing things, but in putting more effort into cleaning up and enforcing protective laws already on the books.
Carl Hagenkotter, director of Victims of NOAA, a statewide anti-NOAA lobbying group, says the sanctuary would not be needed if the estimated 25 state and federal agencies involved enforced the water-quality and reef-protection laws already in place. Appointing the sanctuary superintendent to administer the agencies would just establish another layer of bureaucracy, he adds.
But there is still hope.
Recently, Florida has moved to take a more active role in the sanctuary. Also, the state will have veto and line-item veto powers over the plan when it officially begins reviewing it today. It is likely that many of the plan's unsavory elements will be made more palatable for Keys residents during this process.
"The reef is of national significance. It's a national treasure," Duetsch said at a Keys-wide discussion he hosted after the November referendum. "I'm not going to throw out the baby with the bath water."