The Gulf and The Cove

by Rick Beck

Chapter 4

Water Ways

My father toasted my uncertain future in front of the man who taught me everything I knew about being a marine biologist. I could consider a conspiracy was at hand, but anytime Bill came calling, no matter the reason, I enjoyed his repartee about the work we both did.

Why had Bill Payne picked this time to visit the conservancy house for no particular reason? Harry hadn't rushed me to return to work, or had he? Bill had been doing research in the Pacific. He hadn't come home just to get my marine biology juices flowing. It was great seeing him looking so well.

I hadn't talked shop since leaving Harry's office in August. I wasn't intending on talking shop now, but Bill's mere presence oozed with an opportunity to learn.

In the years since we were teacher and student, Bill had become more and more involved in research. It took him around the globe. It's what he did most of the time. My marine biologist mind couldn't resist such a tantalizing target. It was inevitable we'd talk about it.

"Were you surprised by anything you found on your latest research trip, Bill?" I asked.

"Yes! It's one reason why I wanted to speak to you, Clay. I went to your lab. They said I could most likely find you here."

"And here I was," I said. "I'm taking some time for myself. I took Dylan to Disney World. My first vacation since I finished school."

"I'm not sure I wouldn't have gotten more out of looking for you at Disney World. It's been there a decade and I've never been."

"I felt the same way. Harry suggested a vacation. Dylan suggested Disney World. He more insisted on it. Once we were on the way, I couldn't figure out why we hadn't gone before."

"I heard about your reef. Everyone in our community read about the presentation you gave in Tampa. I regret I missed that, Clay. You've learned and relearned about what we're up against," Bill said. "It's little consolation after the years of dedication you gave that reef, but when I read the story about you in the New York Times, it made me even more determined to make a difference while I can," he said.

"It took all I had to give that presentation in Tampa. I was drained once it was over," I said.

"I do understand, Clay. I have something I wanted to run by you. The waters where we were diving are getting warmer. We are almost half a degree above our readings from a year ago in the same spot. A research team diving there ten years ago recorded temperatures one point eight degrees cooler. Seeing fluctuations of a degree or more isn't unusual. Seeing a continual rise in temperature is disturbing. You have any thoughts on it?"

Thinking about the equation Bill presented, it immediately took me to Popov's fishing fleet. Bill had pitched a fat one right in my wheelhouse.

"It wasn't something we were looking for or expecting. We take the water temperature to have a record of previous conditions in a location we are studying. Having water continually warming isn't good but I don't know how bad it can be either. There's a point when a temperature rise becomes unhealthy for some species. The difference of a degree or two could cause an entire species to relocate if not go extinct. We know increased temperatures hamper reproduction in some species."

"It could," I said, while gathering my thoughts on what I knew about the subject.

"That small a change in temperature can make a difference?" Pop asked.

"That's what we are looking at. The same species are there in numbers consistent with previous surveys. We'll send a team out in six months to check the temperature readings. We'll keep an eye on that location. We are left with the question, 'What is causing the water to warm?' Any thoughts on that, Clay."

"I'm sure I told you about Popov's fishing fleet falling on hard times in the mid 70s," I said.

"I vaguely remember something like that. Refresh my memory you don't mind. If memory serves me correctly, you had Popov stop fishing for a period of time. Over fishing being the concern, I think."

"Five years ago the fishing fleet was coming back with half empty holds," I said. "It was a threat to the life of the cove. Popov came to ask for my help. Ten years earlier I was a fishermen in his fishing fleet. Now I'm the marine biologist at the conservancy."

"You came up with a plan that gave the fish time to reproduce without the strain of constant fishing. Things are humming along as far as I can see. Your plan must have been effective," he said.

"As far as it went, it was effective. There was something else. You will find this interesting. I went with Popov to look at conditions in his fishing grounds. Except for a lack of fish, one thing stood out."

"I can't wait," Bill said.

"The water was unusually warm for that far out in the Gulf of Mexico," I said.

"Do tell," Bill said.

"Because I found nothing else, it bothered me. The records I looked at, and they are limited, say the water in mid Gulf should be several degrees cooler than the water closer to the peninsula of Florida. It's common sense but there are few sources with a comprehensive study of water temperatures over a prolonged period. You may have knowledge that I don't."

"No, go on," Bill said.

"I decided someone needed to keep an ongoing record of water temperatures, so I took steps to do it myself. The first time I took water temperatures in the farthest west fishing grounds the water was one point eight degrees higher than the waters five miles from the coastline. The point being, it stuck out as the only anomaly."

"Did you follow up on the one thing that stuck out?" Bill asked.

"I have all my notes on that period. I parked the fleet for a month. Popov did his yearly maintenance and so did the Fish Warehouse, so they made use of that month. I looked for gauges that would keep a record of water temperatures. I found the best one for my purposes and I installed it on Popov's trawler. We went out to take readings in each of the places he fishes. Each time he stops to fish, the gauge takes a temperature reading. Each time Popov returns from a fishing trip, I copy the information off the gauge. I've kept those records since the original episode. I've installed a similar system on Sea Lab. I've got records going back almost five years on Popov's trawler. I haven't had cause to write anything on those findings yet."

"I'll want to see those records if you don't mind," Bill said.

"I was going to make them available to you. I'll need to go into the conservancy and copy the material for you," I said.

"I'm not scheduled to return to the Pacific until late in October. When you have time, I'd like to see those records."

"Not a problem, Bill," I said, wondering what the reaction would be when I showed up at the conservancy to copy those records.

There was a knock on the door and Mama swung it open. She brought in tall glasses of ice tea and a plate of lemon cookies.

"Just in time, mother. I was going dry. Thank you," Pop said, taking a glass from the tray before she offered a glass to Bill and then to me.

She put the plate of cookies next to Bill.

"I'm forever in your debt, Mrs. Olson. They smell divine."

"Indeed they do," Pop said, reaching for a cookie as Mama closed the door behind her.

I was powerfully hungry after it felt like I was doing most of the talking. It's not how a meeting with Bill usually went, but he seemed interested in what I was telling him.

"A last question if you don't mind, Clay, and then I must beat a path to my house so my wife knows I'm truly home," Bill said. "You've kept track of the water temperatures because it's what stuck out at the time the fish population was depleted. Do you have an opinion on what may account for the warming?"

Bill Payne pitched a high fast one in my wheelhouse.

"The fish returned in sufficient numbers to make the new fishing routine a success. Fishing four days a week, instead of six, making one trip a week, instead of two, worked better than I thought it might," I said. "The savings in fuel, maintenance costs, not to mention wear and tear on the fishermen, is offset by catching enough fish so the bottom line is virtually the same as fishing a six day week. Popov was delighted and I was relieved."

"Once they went on the new schedule, Popov kept it because he could see how much his costs were down. He saw the advantage in the new schedule. He thanked me and told me how much more efficient my idea had made his fleet."

"While I took a shot in the dark on the overfishing, the water temperatures were the only anomaly I found. The warming waters were mentioned in papers written by several universities on the Gulf of Mexico. Another concern was the leaking of oil into the Gulf from oil platforms. Eventually, some biologists think this will create a dead zone. The size of that zone would depend on how much oil leaked into the Gulf and for how long. One thing biologists agreed on, oil and water don't mix."

"I've never looked closely at the coastal drilling industry," Bill said. "For a short term shot of energy, destroying the Gulf seems unwise. The people drilling the oil have little concern for the health of the Gulf," Bill said.

"No, I think not," I said. "That was a minor concern. At Louisiana Tech the Mississippi Delta was a concern of the biologists. A new class of chemicals are being used on farms bordering the Mississippi River. These chemicals are appearing in the waters of the Mississippi River and that water empties into the Gulf. Because the companies producing these chemicals claim to have proprietary rights over the substances in the chemicals, no one knows what's in them."

"It's a new world, Clay," Bill said. "You once needed to prove your product caused no harm to people or the environment. Now no one knows what's in products. The proprietary rights of the polluters take precedence over the health of people or the environment. They claim a brand name product and the law says they don't need to reveal what's in it. One day we'll be able to analyze the chemicals and decide what damage it does, but there is no way to do it yet. By that time there is the damage will be irreversible."

"There are signs that these chemicals have some relationship to warming waters," I said. "We can't prove it."

"And that could effect Popov's fishing grounds and we've come full circle," Bill said.

"I have the material at work, Bill, but speaking from memory, Popov's westernmost fishing grounds, where I encountered warmer waters, are two hundred miles east, three hundred miles south, of where the Mississippi empties into the Gulf," I said. "Assuming that those waters eventually migrate deep into the Gulf, it could account tor the warming waters I encountered and that explains the diminishing fish population,," I said.

"Do the chemicals entering the Gulf at the mouth of the Mississippi River impact fishing that far south? I can't prove that. It's the only suspect I have. No one seems to know what impact those chemicals have.

"Everything you mentioned would create conditions for warming waters. Spring storms in agricultural states wash everything on the farms directly or indirectly into the Mississippi," Bill said. "It needs looking into."

"No one knows the long term impact from a new class of chemicals being used. What we do know is, where those chemicals run off into streams and rivers, it creates favorable conditions for algae and plankton, which encourages bacterial growth. That causes warmer water. Not only that, but when oxygen depletes, it's a factor as well," I said.

"Either condition causes fish population to relocate if they don't die first," Bill said.

"Fish might react to either or both conditions. No one has the answer yet and until we reach some kind of conclusion, the runoff continues," I said. "That we know but I have no evidence from Popov's fishing grounds."

"I need to spend more time with my feet on terra firma reading fellow biologists research papers," Bill said. "I'll need to give it some thought, Clay. It's time for me to be getting home if I know what's good for me. I didn't expect to be so engaged in conversation. We must do this more often. I'm away so much I am not keeping up with what's going on on shore. Walk me to my car, Clay."

I walked Bill Payne to his car. He needed to get home for dinner but one question followed another as he tried to digest some of the information on the newest fertilizers and insecticides being employed on farms all over the country and all over the world.

While Bill was off shore for most of the last couple of years, more and more family farms had fallen into the hands of super agricultural conglomerates and the use of the easiest and cheapest chemicals to achieve the goal of higher production.

"The days when farmers use fertilizer furnished by his animals is over. It's been replaced by chemical cocktails with no regard for what the long term effects are. Add insecticides and weed killers to the brew and who knows what the long term damage to living things could be?"

"The EPA is supposed to be the watchdog on things like this. I haven't talked to Harry about what he's been doing to keep an eye on the use of such chemicals," Bill said.

"He's been planning and putting together a team for his senatorial run. He stepped down as chairman of the environmental committee earlier this year," I said.

"It will take him time to get seniority in the senate. He can sit on the committees he favors but his power will be limited. Perhaps he'll influence the other senators. They're mostly reasonable men."

"For the last year Harry hasn't been around much. Once this campaign gets underway, he'll be here all the time," I said.

"Florida has as much agriculture as anyone but California," Bill said. "We need to address this before it gets out of hand, Clay."

"I've been cataloging papers concerning new chemicals being used in the environment.

"Anything more local pointing to chemicals having an adverse impact on the environment, Clay? I'm going over to the university later this week and I'll want to read what they have. Can you recommend a place to start in Florida?"

"Check the Apalachicola oyster harvest for the last few years. One year it was off by a lot. Oyster men went out off business. There were reports of discoloration in the water. They found bright green to bright red blooms. No cause anyone was willing to stake his career on but in northern Florida there are farms and what's on their fields runs off during storms. The streams and waterway carry the runoff into the bay and the oyster beds. The algae bloom were in the bay. They found excess phosphorus and nitrogen in the water. Unlike fish, if oysters encounter harsh conditions, they can't swim away."

"I'll be talking to the biologists at the university and I need a place to start. That sounds like it," Bill said.

"If it is the chemicals and they are running off into the bay, the bay empties into the Gulf of Mexico," Bill said. "We need to know if the chemicals are in the Gulf, Clay. You might want to take the Sea Lab up north in the Gulf to take water samples. Only after years of documenting the presence of those chemicals can we say for sure they are doing damage to waterways."

"Exactly," I said.

"You've given it a lot of thought," Bill said. "Don't forget to copy the water temperature records you have and any research papers you think are relevant to our conversation today. I've got to get out of here. Very good seeing you, Clay and thank you. As usual, it's been enlightening for me to hear what's on your mind."

He opened the door and positioned himself to sit down.

"I just might talk to Harry about taking you with me on a research fellowship, Clay. Expeditions in the Pacific are an entirely new world. How'd you like to do some diving in the Pacific with my research team?"

"I'd love it, Bill," I said. "I do have a kid and... well, one of the shorter voyages would work. Mama and Pop already carry me far too much with Dylan and I'm uneasy when I'm away from him."

"I'll get back to you when we're going out for a week or two. We can fly you to L.A. and we'll take my research vessel through the canal to meet you," Bill said. "I''m going to want to talk to you again once I see your records on the water temperatures and after I read the research material you send me."

"I'll do anything you need me to do, Bill. I've made notes on the research papers. I'll copy those too," I said. "Give me a week or so to organize and copy it."

"Yes, that will work fine," Bill said. "It wasn't my intention to give you homework," Bill said, laughing over the concept."

Ten years ago Bill kept me buried in homework and now I knew when I would return to work. Nothing like a visit from my teacher to get the juices flowing.

Two days after Bill Payne came for a visit, I went to Dylan's school to talk to his sixth grade class on career day.

It was on a Wednesday.

I took publicity pictures of Sea Lab with me standing behind her on the dock at the marina. Harry had the pictures taken to use as handouts at political events.

I brought slides home to show Ivan and Dylan after Ivan came home and I gathered those in the hopes of having access to a slide projector. I didn't prepare comments for the purpose. I'd rely on my basic environment speech I gave at Harry's events.

What did you say to kids my son's age? I'd try to keep it simple.

One ten year old was definitely a handful. Thirty would be a test of my courage under fire, but Dylan insisted I be there.

It wasn't like I was over worked.

Mrs. Foster took me aside while a fireman entertained the kids with tales of fire fighting and rescues.

After his dramatic presentation, I'd put them to sleep.

"You know Dylan is reading Ana Karenina?" Mrs. Foster asked.

"Lucy left it on the table in our foyer at the house. Dylan started reading it there. I should have told him not to bring it to class," I said.

"No, No, it's not a problem. Tolstoy is not what the well read sixth grader is reading this year," she said with a chuckle. "I don't have any objection but it's a bit mature for sixth graders."

"I can ask him to leave it at home if you'd like," I said.

"No, I didn't intend to make an issue out of it. He's a quick learner. I wouldn't want to do anything to discourage him. If I had thirty students like Dylan, I could stay home," she said.

I laughed but I think she was serious.

"I'd forgotten Lucy Olson is Dylan's aunt. She's a fine teacher."

"She was reading nineteenth century literature to Dylan at three, and she had him read aloud from her books before he was five. I got him Dr. Seuss and I was reading those books to him at night. I even thought he might be a little slow at first. By the second time through the five Dr. Seuss books I bought, he was squirming and couldn't sit still," I said.

"Sure sign of boredom. If Lucy was reading nineteenth century literature to him, he was conditioned for more sophisticated reading. Dr. Seuss is a wonderful place to start children reading," she said. "Dylan is an avid reader. He'd have to be to lug one of Tolstoy's books around with him."

"He memorized the Dr. Seuss books. He could say the lines before I read them," I said. "He was reading Jane Austin at five. What I learned was, Dylan's daddy was the slow one, not Dylan."

She laughed.

"Lucy has a program about the Gulf of Mexico. She gives it to all the classes in school. They learn about you, the Gulf of Mexico, and what it takes to keep bodies of water clean. She told me she hopes to recruit kids to help keep the Gulf clean. She's a popular teacher," Mrs. Foster said. "The kids love her."

The fireman did his imitation of carrying a grandmother over his shoulder while cradling her precious cat in his free arm.

"She wasn't leaving without that cat," he said. "I can report that both Fluffy and Mildred are doing well and her house suffered only minor damage and that's been repaired."

The kids laughed and the fireman left the floor to applause.

Following a fireman wasn't my idea of the proper order.

"I'm Dylan's father," I said. "I'm a marine biologist."

A boy near the back raised his hand.

"Yes," I said.

"My father's a marine," he said to titters from his classmates.

I immediately flashed back to my own sixth grade experience and I remembered that sixth graders were a tough audience.

"Yes, and marines are vigilant and they protect us and keep us safe. I'm the kind of marine that protects things in the sea. A marine biologist is someone who studies the environment and tells people like you about what he finds," I said.

A girl in the middle of the front row raised her hand.

"There are women marine biologists too," she said to remind me.

"Quinton!" Mrs. Foster said.

"Well there are and they're every bit as smart as male biologists."

What time does the lunch bell ring, I wondered.

"There are," I said, reflecting on the pronoun he that what's her name picked up on.

A boy raised his hand.

"Yes," I said, already intimidated by my lack of awareness about sixth graders today.

"You drive the Sea Lab. I've seen it at the marina. My father says you are the only man standing between the Gulf of Mexico and it being ruined by pollution."

I wanted to ask the kid for his address. I'd send his father a thank you card.

"That's an ambitious description of what I do. I remind people not to throw things in the any body of water. If everyone threw their trash into the waterways, they'd become dumps. Under the surface of the water are millions of living creatures. They need clean water and that's why we need to do our best to keep the water clean," I said. "That will keep the Gulf beautiful so we can enjoy going to the beach and keeping the Gulf clean means the sea creatures stay healthy."

"Class, Mr. Olson has some slides of what he encounters in his job as a marine biologist," Mrs. Foster said.

I'd send Mrs. Foster a thank you card too.

"I also brought a picture of Sea Lab for each of you. They're on the table by the door," I said, losing my audience.

There was definitely order to the chaos. The boys charged the table, fighting to be the first one to get a picture.

"Line up," Mrs. Foster said.

She sounded exasperated. Losing control of her class was every teacher's nightmare. There would be no thank you card from Mrs. Foster.

I was sure I'd be scolded by the sixth grade teacher. Not that much had changed in nearly twenty years.

The girls sat politely waiting for the boys to get it out of their system. Then they walked by the stack of pictures one at a time. There were plenty to go around.

The pronoun policewoman stood in front of me, staring up at my face. She was bigger than most of the boys. I waited to be scolded again about the he she matter, but she spoke sweetly to me.

"Would you mind signing the picture for me. I'm Quinton," she said.

I wrote, 'Quinton, it takes all of us to keep the water clean. Clayton Olson.'

Quinton thanked me and she returned to her seat like a lady but now the line formed for me to sign each picture. I should have signed them before I came to class. As I signed each picture, I made a mental note, Never, never ever, bring handouts to a classroom.

I could see Mrs. Foster's disappointment over so much time being wasted. In five minutes or so the pictures were signed and the students were back in their seats. I was still hoping for the lunch bell.

Dylan stayed in his seat. He knew where the pictures of Sea Lab looked like. His nose stayed in the book he was reading.

"I've brought some slides to show you. Mrs. Foster has set them up and we can see them now."

The lights went out and the slide projector shined a bright light on the blackboard. With a click the first slide appeared. It was one of the more colorful slides I'd taken over the years. The bright colors got the kids attention. The room fell quiet except for the clicking of the slide projector.

"These are the kinds of fish I see when I SCUBA dive and take my camera along to make a record of the fish. The Gulf of Mexico is a clear body of water and pictures give you some idea of how colorful the underwater world is," I said, as Mrs. Foster changed slides.

Once the slide show was over and the lights were back on, kids began asking questions. The question and answer period ended after fifteen or twenty minutes and I said goodbye to Dylan's class.

He was still reading when I left.

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