Pestilent Marine Pollution

January 3, 2014 Updated: April 28, 2016

The stink radiated off the water. It wafted over the marina docks into the pool and dining room area of the resort. There was no mistaking what it was. Raw sewage was being dumped into a lagoon that separated the mainland from a peninsula opposite.

“La peste,” Dr. Manuel Moran said. His eyes followed swaths of sewage as the noxious waste floated along the wide lagoon. The sewage clearly was a plague. Dr. Moran, an experienced physician and surgeon that directed hospitals in Guatemala, saw the danger. Not only did the noisome pollution contaminate the waterfront of this luxury tourist resort, it clearly posed a menace to health.

Children cast fishing nets in the canal. As the tide went out they jumped into the water and pushed their little skiff across a muddy flat. People swam, others water skied in what was untreated sewage. Point sources of effluent were visible from the hotel dock.

The resort’s owner has high hopes. Guatemala’s Pacific Ocean is home to sailfish and marlin. There is excellent billfishing offshore. Sport fishermen travel the globe to find the best spots to fish. They pay big money to enjoy their sport. Infrastructure in Mexico and Costa Rica attracts billfishermen from the United States and the rest of the world. Guatemala is dubbed the sailfish capital of the world. The government has established rules that require catch-and-release only.

Private enterprise advertised and sought American tourists. The Pacific resort is comfortable and offers fishing packages that cost a thousand dollars a day. Anyone plunking down that kind of money for a week of fishing at a luxury resort does not want to smell sewage. The government of Guatemala cannot afford to lose that kind of tourist income.

“Tourists that visit the ruins in Tikal, what do they spend? At most a hundred dollars a day. Here fishing clients pay ten thousand each for a week of fishing. They tip the captain and crew. They spend big money compared to usual tourists,” the owner of the resort said.

French Navy Captain Philippe Tailliez intertwined a medical caduceus with the words economy and ecology. He would explain how the two were intertwined. The medical symbolism was not lost on his audiences. It represented health and welfare. It was Tailliez’ work as commander of the French Navy’s diving operations after World War II that brought one of his officers into diving. After serving under Tailliez, Jacques Yves Cousteau left the French Navy to explore the oceans and reveal environmental issues to world television viewers through his underwater films.

Both ocean pioneers would be distraught had they witnessed streams of floating sewage in the lagoon that led, at tide change, to the Pacific Ocean. Every dwelling along the water produced waste. There was no containment, no sewage treatment facility and no protection from disease that waste of this magnitude could cause.

“Everything. Hepatitis, cholera, typhus, bacteriological infections.” Dr. Moran was adamant. He recognized the health danger to people using canal water. From observations around the world it was worse by far than the klongs of Thailand around Bangkok. The same stink and mess once polluted New York’s East River and the Hudson River.

Long Island Sound was, and sometimes still is, the repository of sewage. Florida’s Atlantic Ocean has received sewage discharges from municipal authorities that created mile-long pipes that carried treated sewage into the ocean. The pipes often carried untreated sewage when heavy rains overburdened municipal treatment plants’ ability to hold the contaminated waste.

The world’s oceans have immense diluting powers. There is a saturation point where human contaminants exceed healthy norms. Population explosions and development create waste problems everywhere. Waste treatment facilities cannot keep up with increased volumes. In developing countries sewage is not viewed as an important problem compared to other issues.

Proper sewage treatment is expensive. There must be construction using pipes and conduits to treatment plants. There has to be an infrastructure of trained technicians to properly operate sewage treatment plants then there must be outlets for the treated waste.

One of the problems associated with treated waste water is that heavy metals, chemicals and elements like nitrogen and phosphorous are not removed. It requires sophisticated treatment systems to remove nitrogen from waste water. These systems hardly exist in the United States let alone in nations that have populations living well below the poverty level.

The result? Algae proliferation on a grand scale never imagined by city planners. The simple observation of fishermen anchoring their boats near sewage outfalls describes one aspect of the problem. Sewage is a nutrient. Fish eat it. Elements contained in waste water are nutrients for plants. It needs little imagination to understand that plants on land are fertilized so that they grow. With rain the fertilizer used washes off the land and into tributaries that eventually enter rivers.

In Florida gigantic canals criss-cross the state. These canals end up, eventually, at the ocean. Waste water from agricultural endeavors of all sorts including beef and cattle waste, become nutrients for algae. The algae proliferate. Underwater, algal growth clings to hard and soft corals, sponges and other sessile marine life and suffocates them. There are entire reef areas in South Florida that have been devastated by algae.

There are two major issues raised by sewage discharges. One is described by Dr. Manual Moran and involves human health and welfare. The plagues that devastated Europe in past centuries are evidence of unsanitary conditions. Unobserved, save by a few scuba divers and marine biologists, is the long range harm to ocean resources caused by imbalances that create algal blooms.

Long Island Sound is one example of marine eutrophication. The very same thing can be observed in summer on fresh water ponds. At the start of spring the pond is clear of algae. By mid-summer the same pond is clogged with green. Warm summer conditions, sunshine and nutrients combine to allow algae to grow until some ponds are completely overgrown with mats of green that choke out other life. Some pond owners establish fountains in their ponds to aerate the water and allow oxygen to be introduced. This protects marine life that requires oxygen to breathe.

Yes plants produce oxygen. When they die they sink to the bottom of the water environment where the dead mats are attacked by bacteria. These bacteria consume oxygen in the water. When oxygen is depleted life dies. The same thing happens in the marine environment. Sewage pumped into Long Island Sound by municipal sewage treatment plants created high nitrogen content. The nitrogen allowed algae to bloom. When the algae died and sank to the bottom, bacteria consumed the debris and depleted oxygen. As a result there were massive shellfish deaths. The lobster population in the eastern Sound was killed off as were crabs and other sedentary marine life.

Guatemala is a country of about 15 million people living on 42,042 square miles of land. The 1940 population was less than 3.3 million. There are two coastlines of this Central American country, one on the Pacific the other on the Atlantic. It is mostly agricultural. Tourism brings in a large percentage of hard currency and accounts for a ‘clean’ economy. If tourism is to succeed then visitors must be able to enjoy the environment.

Diving tourism and billfish catch-and-release offer Guatemala great opportunities for economic growth. A quick fix to reduce the impact of raw sewage in the lagoon would be to open more passageways to the Pacific Ocean. Tide change would carry the waste away from shore. That is temporary. Permanent solutions must be sought to treat sewage properly to protect human and animal health as well as the environment.

The world around us is changing rapidly. Natural resources are being consumed at alarming rates. Human population has grown to limits that stress nature’s ability to handle waste in all of its forms including chemical and hazardous wastes. Survival depends on husbandry of ocean resources and good management of sewage. “Diseases from this will make them sick,” Dr. Moran said. He watched children swimming in the polluted canal with distress.