Sunday July 07, 2013 | 10:02 AM
Posted by Harold Johnson

In the housing market, the saying goes, “Location, Location, Location.”

Turns out, the same is true for real estate on a beach.

This is a tale of two tide pools. With larger lessons for what’s happening to the world’s oceans.

When this past winter’s storms had finally finished, the wrack was piled high on the backshore at Curtis Cove. In some places 2-3 feet deep!

(March 22)

Since then, as every spring, it’s slowly rotted away, washing down into the sea. There its nutrients feed the next algae blooms -- and all the huge web of life that ultimately depends on them.

(April 17 - the seaweed slowly breaking down, carried off in bits & pieces by the high tides)

It’s a beautiful cycle. Usually.

But sometimes there’s too much wrack. Too much rot. It all flows down at once, and its effects can be anything but beautiful.

This tide pool lies amid rocks high up at Curtis Cove, out of the direct path of the outwash:

Its crystal-clear waters nurtured hundreds of periwinkles & slipper shells. Small dazzling silvery fish and countless little scuds darted around from shady nook to shady nook.

Just 50 feet away, down the slope toward the sea, lay this tide pool:

It sat right in the line of fire for the runoff. Its waters were a livid, foul-smelling murk. In it, nothing moved. Except for the bacteria feeding off of decay, it was dead.

Blooms of algae -- phytoplankton -- are the key to life on earth as we know it. They provide between 50 and 70% of the oxygen that all animals, including us, breathe.

But there can be too much of a good thing. On small scales, and ocean-sized scales.

Algae, like farm crops, need nutrients in order to thrive. In many parts of the world, because of massive runoff of fertilizer and manure into rivers, they’re getting far more than they need. Phytoplankton blooms are breaking records for their size and mass.

When all that plankton dies, it sinks and is consumed by bacteria. But the bacteria need oxygen to do their work. As they feast on their smorgasbord, they suck up all the dissolved oxygen in the ocean around them. Sometimes leaving dead zones thousands of square miles in size.

The Gulf of Mexico has been facing ever-increasing dead zones, thanks to agricultural runoff dribbling into the Mississippi River.


In fact, scientists predict a dead zone the size of New Jersey for the Gulf this summer.

In just its latest environmental disaster, China is currently coping with its largest algae bloom ever -- 11,500 square miles of it! Also thanks to poorly regulated factory farming.


You can only tug on nature’s systems for so long before they break. Annually killing off the most productive & diverse ecosystems in the ocean -- which we need to sustain our 7 billion people -- is folly. Yet, in 2013 at the height of our technology and “wisdom,” that’s just what we’re doing.

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About the Author

Visiting a Maine beach in March 2010, Harold Johnson was shocked by the ocean-borne debris left by recent storms. He grabbed a garbage bag and a camera, and hasn’t looked back.

Since then he has spent most of his free time studying marine pollution, coastal ecosystems, and the mysteries and science of ocean and shore.

Copyeditor and writer by trade, historian and archaeologist at heart, Johnson’s philosophy is simple: Dig below the surface, travel the currents, make the connections, learn. Then share what you learn. He lives in Saco with his wife and young daughter. Follow on Twitter @FlotsamDiaries.

Previous entries

March 2014

February 2014

January 2014

December 2013

November 2013

October 2013


September 2013

August 2013

July 2013

June 2013

May 2013

April 2013

March 2013

February 2013

January 2013

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