A Reef So Fragile That A Handful of Popcorn Can Be Harmful

WHAT'S wrong with this picture?

Overhead, a 1940, open-cockpit biplane carries tourists who want a bird's-eye view of the coral reef about six miles off Key West. In the blue-green waters around the reef, at least eight boats, some with glass bottoms, hover so tourists can see the multicolored fish. A dozen snorkelers are swimming over the reef.

A guide on one of the glass-bottom boats offers bags of popcorn for $1. ``Throw it overboard,'' he says, ``and see the feeding frenzy of the fish.'' A tourist buys a bag and tosses popcorn over the side. The water churns with hundreds of fish battling for the white kernels.

What's wrong with this picture is that this fragile coral reef, part of the 200- mile long Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, needs to be protected from overuse and abuse.

According to a five-year study done by the University of Georgia, parts of the reef are dying at the rate of 10 percent a year, and the entire reef will be dead by the year 2000. Even the slightest touch of a human hand is detrimental.

``The fact is that no reef in the world is so close to such a heavily populated area as the Keys,'' says Dee Von Quirolo, project director of Reef Relief, a conservation group in Key West.

The reef's decline has been linked to the following causes: Pollution from human activity, sedimentation from worldwide erosion, diseases that take a toll on reef species, and changing weather patterns, sometimes blamed on global warming. Even though some scientists take issue with the dire prediction that the reef is in its death throes, few disagree that conservation measures should be taken.

The National Marine Sanctuary Act, signed into law by President Bush in 1991, will coordinate all economic and recreational uses of the reef into a plan created by the Environmental Protection Agency, and National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

So far, funding for the plan has been far less than the loud, emotional debate over how to protect the economic interests of those who use the Keys. Commercial fishermen, tour-boat owners, cruise-ship owners, and divers are all part of the debate.

``Inadequate sewage disposal is a major problem here,'' says Ms. Quirolo, who has implemented efforts along the Keys to educate the public about the condition of the reef. ``We have thousands of illegal cesspits,'' she says, ``many of which were installed in the 1950's and 60's with lesser drain fields that leach into canals and waterways.''

Recently Gary Blum, owner of a retail store in Key West, and a member of the city board planning the future of the waterfront, voiced a concern that many on the island share: With several plans for new hotels, and the possibility that a large local Navy airport may soon be open for commercial flights, and with more and more people visiting the coral reef, Mr. Blum said, ``This is too much. This island's going to sink.''

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