The Ocean: Our Most Valuable Resource

It’s difficult to think of Volusia County without an image of the ocean coming to one’s mind. Our 47 miles of beaches not only steal the hearts of many tourists each year, but also of the over half-million people who call the county home. While we may enjoy plopping a chair on the ground, staring at the waves, and feeling our troubles fade away, there’s a lot more at stake here than what meets the eye. Our local ocean plays a major role in the local economy, making it imperative that we prioritize its protection for the health of the county.

“Tourism is the largest contributor to the Volusia County economy,” says Rob Ehrhardt, the economic development director for Volusia County, “driven largely by our proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and the St. Johns River, and by a consistent commitment to protecting and preserving our environment.”

In recent years, the county is has seen record numbers of tourists. There are over 9 million who visit the county each year, and it takes a lot of local employees to help provide them with a good experience. According to NOAA, just over 9 percent of all jobs in Volusia County are considered ocean jobs, with roughly 90% of them tied to tourism. Collectively, this adds up to over 14,000 people who are employed locally in ocean jobs, totaling $288 million in annual wages, and some $578 million in yearly goods and services.

“Sustainability of these natural resources is critical to the future of our community as a great place to live, learn, work, and play,” adds Ehrhardt.

Each year, over 2 million pounds of seafood are commercially caught in Volusia County waters, with a value of over $4 million, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture. If there’s one industry that knows all too well the economic importance of our ocean it is fishing. Born and raised in Volusia County, Captain Jimmy Hull, owner of Hull’s Seafood in Ormond Beach, FL, has been relying on fishing for a living since he was a teenager. Today, at 62, he’s taken a love of fishing and steadily grown it into an enterprise that operates four commercial fishing vessels, a seafood market, and a seafood restaurant.

Over the decades that Hull has been fishing the local waters, he has seen the abundance of fishery stock rise and fall due to egg recruitment success, environmental factors, and fishing pressure. Today, all the South Atlantic fish stock, both inshore and offshore, is under sustainable fishery management plans to help ensure a plentiful future.

“The demand for fresh local seafood is increasing with the growing population,” he says. “My story is repeated north and south in communities on the Florida coastline. I believe the future is bright if we can keep our waters clean and preserve the marshes and wetlands, which are vital to seafood production.”

One important tool that has helped Hull to successfully fish the same waters for 45 years and still get good catches is the county’s artificial reefs. A program started in the 1970s, it has helped create and sustain a robust local fishing industry.

“Commercial fishermen needed more structures to attract the fish,” explains Tom Kinsey, president of the Volusia County Reef Research Dive Team, an independent nonprofit organization that has helped in the reef exploration and monitoring process.

With over 140 artificial reefs on 15 permitted sites offshore, fishermen are able to stay closer to the shore and have access to a good catch. Divers and recreational boaters also visit the reefs for their abundance of marine life. The reefs consist of sunken ships, concrete culverts, bridge materials, DOT road materials, and concrete reef balls, all of which have been inspected and cleaned prior to being dropped into the ocean. Placed with the authority of the Army Corps of Engineers, the artificial reefs help to relieve the pressure placed on natural reefs.

Once the artificial reef is dropped, it quickly becomes a place to which marine life flocks, thus increasing the biomass of Volusia County’s offshore environment. The organization estimates that for every one dollar spent on artificial reefs in the county, it generates a $138 return by means of sales in food, gasoline, fishing tackle, diving equipment, etc.

“The artificial reefs are working very well,” added Kinsey. “I’m more concerned about our natural reefs. When you start losing habitat, the ocean starts dying, and then mankind is gone. Artificial reefs may be the future of our coastal waters.”

In addition to the fishing industry, there are many people in the area who have boats, adding to the local ocean-related economy. Popular year round, Halifax Harbor Marina, the largest wet slip marina in the area boasts 550 slips and 8 public boat ramps.

“Besides the dockage that is paid, most boaters will hire a number of local contractors and tradesmen to work on their boats,” explains John Bauchman, the general manager of the marina. “Often, boaters will shop at local shops and markets. The occupancy rate at the marina has increased by 30% since 2014. As the economy improves, people have more disposable income to buy things for their leisure time.”

Leisure time sports and entertainment add to the local economy. In addition to the pleasure boating industry, there are other local companies that generate income from ocean-related entities, including those offering surfing lessons, paddleboarding, surf shops, charter fishing, eco-tours, and more.

“Compared with many parts of the country, the health of our ocean is still robust. However, the threats to the ocean are complex and ever present,” explains Kelli McGee, president of Natura Strategies. “Often referred to as ‘runoff,’ nonpoint source pollution is caused when rainfall picks up pollution and carries it downstream, ultimately to our ocean and rivers.”

As an attorney who advocates for local issues regarding water quality through Project H2O and sustainability, Ms. McGee is also an expert in natural resource conservation and has written local laws. She explains that lawn fertilizers and other chemicals seep into the ground water and flow into surface waters. Additionally, septic systems can leach phosphorus and nitrogen into ground water that connects to our waterways. This can lead to red and brown tides, which create harmful algal blooms and deplete the amount of oxygen in the water, causing fish kills. The algal blooms are harmful to both marine life and humans.

Some of the ways that she suggests we can help to keep our oceans healthy include investing in green infrastructure (dune planting to protect against storm surge and filter pollution), reducing yard fertilizer (especially in the summer), and supporting local efforts that promote healthy habitat through outreach.

The ocean not only provides people with a place for having fun, relaxing, and a way to make a viable living, but it can also be cause for concern. As we have witnessed with each hurricane that has passed, it can be a powerful force that causes disruption and economic devastation. The threat that we can’t do much about beyond preparing for them and working to recover from the damages. But there are some threats to our local ocean that we can do something about.

“This may surprise many, but our biggest threat is actually one of the tiniest of particles – it’s microplastics,” says Debra Woodall, PhD, a professor of oceanography and the director of the Institute of Marine and Environmental Studies at Daytona State College. “It is estimated that each year, 8 million tons of plastics enter our oceans, much of this in the form of microplastics. I have a student who just conducted research on microplastics found in our local oysters. Microplastics are now being found in our foods.”

According to the U.N. Environment Assembly, microplastics are pieces of plastic that are five millimeters across or smaller, and are found in every ocean around the world. They enter the ocean through runoff, river water, and wind, as larger pieces of plastic (such as plastic bottles) that break down into small pieces, or they enter the water stream in the form of microbeads that are used in many cosmetics and beauty products. Additionally, plastic microfibers, which are in synthetic materials such as fleece, add to the plastic problem. Tiny pieces come off with each wash. Microplastics enter the marine food chain, potentially causing risks to human health and the environment.

Finding a viable solution for cleaning up the microplastics is difficult, because if it removes the plastics it will also likely remove plankton. The ideal solution for helping to keep our ocean clean and healthy is for everyone, both businesses and consumers, to work together to find solutions, reduce our contribution to pollution, and assist in restoration and sustainability efforts.

“Our ocean is vital to our local economy,” adds McGee. “Residents and visitors from around the world enjoy commercial fishing, ecotourism, and spending beautiful days on our wide sandy beaches. Protecting the oceans is a solid, sustainable investment.”