The Oculina coral reefs are a rare and wondrous natural treasure, just 25 miles east of Daytona Beach. Up to 300 feet deep on the Atlantic Ocean floor, the delicate coral seems worlds away. But, they weren't far enough away to prevent widescale destruction by unchecked fishing practices in the 1970s and '80s. And now, even though miles have been protected, the Oculina's destiny is still unknown. Roll your mouse over the images for more details.

What's the water quality on our beaches?
Environmental specialists with local health departments wade into the sea once a week collecting samples to answer that question. Local water quality benefits from wide beaches and strong currents, said Chip Schelble, who oversees the program in Volusia County. The samples are tested for bacteria that can cause stomach illness and indicate other, more hazardous bacteria. If bacteria counts are high, a swimming advisory is issued. Flagler County has never issued an advisory in six years of monitoring. But itıs happened six times in the past two years on Volusia beaches, usually in the spring and winter, which Schelble attributes to the droppings of large flocks of migrating birds.Workers have tested the water after huge storms, he said, and did not find high bacteria levels.

Eat more fish... maybe not
A spiraling demand for seafood worldwide, aided by high-tech advances in the fishing industry, sent the populations of many marine life species plummeting. The worldıs seafood consumption nearly tripled in 25 years between 1950 and 1975 and has fluctuated since then. Shown below is the weight of seafood caught in the Atlantic Ocean between 1950 and 2004 in 1,000 tons.

-- A typical shrimp trawler is 90 plus feet long, 700 to 1,000 horsepower
-- Itıs pulling four 60-foot nets 12-feet wide, with 42-inch tall doors.
--The combination of the gear is about 3,500 pounds on each side.


Where the Oculina is and what's out there
In a busy ocean, marine life and vessels compete for space. At one time on a clear day in August, all of these boats were spotted on the radars of the Coast Guard cutter Shrike, just a mile outside the borders of a protected area of the Oculina Bank. A pod of 18 to 20 Atlantic spotted dolphins and two sea turtles also were seen.

SOURCES: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, New England Aquarium, Reef Ball Foundation and News-Journal research.

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(Eubalaena glacialis)

-- For a while, it appeared the whales had a chance. Hunting was banned in 1935. Their numbers, which may have hovered as low as 50, slowly started to increase.
-- As the worldıs population boomed, other dangers surfaced: industrialized fishing and the growth of worldwide trade, which puts the whales in direct conflict with huge vessels.
-- Since 1970, nearly 70 have died, nearly half directly linked to ship collisions or entanglements in fishing gear.

(Epinephelus striatus

For years, the reef fish of the Atlantic, especially grouper and snapper, have been highly prized by fishermen. Several species have been considered species of concern for 15 years. The Nassau and Goliath groupers, for example, were once among the most abundant, but now are candidates for the federal endangered species list.
-- They are found in waters up to 295 feet deep, generally near coral reefs and rocky bottoms.
-- They can grow to 4 feet long, weigh up to 55 pounds and live 16 years.
-- They congregate by the tens of thousands to spawn, making it highly possible for them to be over-harvested; itıs illegal to possess them in Florida.
-- They change color patterns quickly and camouflage by blending in with rocks and corals.
-- They hide and pounce on their prey, eating other fish, shrimp, crabs, lobsters and octopuses.

(Caretta caretta)

Seven species of sea turtle roam the world's oceans. All are endangered or threatened. They face many threats, ranging from loss of nesting area on beaches to death from harmful fishing practices and marine debris.
-- Six species are found off the Florida coast and may nest on Volusia and Flagler beaches: loggerhead, leatherback, green, hawksbill and Kemp's ridley.
-- Loggerheads are the most abundant sea turtles in the U.S, but nest numbers have declined over the past eight years.
-- The endangered leatherback is the largest living reptile in the world. It can dive deeper than half a mile and males may weigh more than 2,000 pounds.
-- Green turtles are the only herbivorous sea turtles, feeding primarily on seagrass and algae. They weigh between 300 and 350 pounds.

(Oculina varicosa)

The Oculina Bank is a vast reef system with just one coral species, ivory tree coral. But, itıs home to 770 species of fish and nearly 300 species of mollusks and crustaceans. The coral grows at depths up to 200 to 300 feet in bushes, mounds and on limestone pinnacles up to 100 feet high. The bank stretches south to Fort Pierce and lies beneath the Gulf Stream, an ocean current system that begins in the Caribbean and moves along the East Coast into the North Atlantic. The coral isnıt the splashy bright colors a snorkeler sees in the Florida Keys. Itıs pale because the algae that give other corals color and nutrition canıt grow without sunlight. Ivory tree coral is so fragile it can be crushed just by closing a hand around it. That leaves it susceptible to destruction from fishing nets. Some researchers say less than 10 percent of the original reef remains. Bushes of coral 3 to 5 feet tall may be centuries old. Because it grows so slowly -- 1/2 inch per year -- restoration could take decades.


In a project to try to restore the coral and fish, Florida State University professor Christopher Koenig and Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute have placed artificial reef structures on the ocean floor and attached small pieces of coral to them. In 2000 and 2001, Koenig placed 220 concrete reef balls on the floor of the bank. Initial studies show the balls, 3 feet across at the base and about 2 feet high, seem to be working.