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Sea sick 

The ocean doesn't seem to be safe for surfers, but nobody knows why

By all accounts, Jennifer Jozwiak is a healthy, athletic 38-year-old woman who mountain bikes and surfs regularly. Yet this quintessential California blonde, the picture of vitality, gets sick every time she surfs the Pismo Beach area.

"Last summer, around mid-July, I came back from vacation and

click to enlarge DISMAL PISMO :  Pismo Creek, which travels directly into the ocean, is consistently nasty-looking and frequently posted with warnings that contact with the water is unsafe. - PHOTO BY JESSE ACOSTA
  • Photo by Jesse Acosta
  • DISMAL PISMO : Pismo Creek, which travels directly into the ocean, is consistently nasty-looking and frequently posted with warnings that contact with the water is unsafe.
# started my six-day-a-week surfing routine and just noticed that I was always getting sick from the water," said Jozwiak, an Allan Hancock English instructor. "I had head congestion, sinus problems I couldn't sleep at night and couldn't breathe. The only thing that helped was to stay out of the water."

For months, Jozwiak tried everything from home remedies to over-the-counter nasal sprays, but nothing worked as long as she kept surfing. She suspected that her illness was due to the red-tide phenomenon, an algae bloom that some people claim produces toxins that cause respiratory illness in humans. Coastal water pollution and increases in seawater temperatures appear to be causal factors in red tides.

"I noticed others were having the same problems and the same symptoms," she said. "I talked to the owner of Good, Clean Fun surf shop, and he said [the red tide] was the worst he'd seen in 30 years."

Jozwiak went to her doctor, who provided her prescriptions and told her to stay out of the water a tough order for a diehard surfer.

"I spent that whole summer kind of sick, but after the red tide went away, I was fine," she said. "I was out of town during the big storm in January, down in Mexico surfing, but when I came back, I heard about the sewage spill, so I wrote an editorial complaining about the dirty water. In the editorial, I told people who were getting sick from the ocean to contact Surfrider and fill out its ocean-illness form. It got me thinking: If I'm filling out this form, others are feeling this way. I should get more involved."

click to enlarge RED TIDE :  While surfers claim anecdotal evidence that so-called "red tides" (harmful algae blooms) make them sick, state and county officials believe the phenomenon only affects fish populations. - PHOTO BY JESSE ACOSTA
  • Photo by Jesse Acosta
  • RED TIDE : While surfers claim anecdotal evidence that so-called "red tides" (harmful algae blooms) make them sick, state and county officials believe the phenomenon only affects fish populations.

# This past April, Jozwiak started going to local Surfrider meetings. She soon discovered that the county's water testing was limited and felt that when pollution exceeded water-safety standards, not enough was being done to warn the public.

The County Department of Health Services tests 22 beach locations weekly and posts signs when water exceeds recreational water-safety standards. So far this year, there were 15 postings in January, 22 in March, 22 in April, four in May, and two in June.

The county tests for three different indicators: total coliform, fecal coliform, and enterococcus basically organisms associated with animal waste.

"All come from the gut of warm-blooded animals, and all are indicator organisms," explained Curt Batson, the county's director of Environmental Health. "They aren't necessarily pathogenic, and they don't necessarily cause disease. They're an indicator that some sources that may cause disease are present. The tests don't tell us which source. Those tests exist, but they're expensive and take longer to process."

The county tests every Tuesday and knows the results within 24 hours. If the results are greater than recreational water-safety standards, warnings are posted and beaches are immediately retested.

"We take a follow-up sample and determine whether to continue the posting or take the signs down," Batson said. "Our biggest problems occur in the winter months, and a lot of the problems are associated with the flushing of creeks in the ocean. What happens in the summer is they dry up, become toilets for any number of animals, then the rains come and flush all that into the ocean."

click to enlarge NOT POTABLE! :  Farm runoff can contain pesticides, fertilizer, animal waste, and worse, and it frequently runs untreated right into the ocean. - PHOTO BY JESSE ACOSTA
  • Photo by Jesse Acosta
  • NOT POTABLE! : Farm runoff can contain pesticides, fertilizer, animal waste, and worse, and it frequently runs untreated right into the ocean.

# One problem with the county's testing is its limited scope. Jozwiak is getting sick in the summer, a time when test results for fecal coliform generally fall within water-safety standards.

"I live in Shell Beach, and I think it's the red tide that's making me sick," Jozwiak said. "What's causing the increase in red tides? People have different theories like nitrates, fertilizer in the water."

Batson, on the other hand, doubts that so-called red tides are a problem.

"Red tides are plankton blooms, as I understand it, and may have some impact on some sea life," he said. "Those plankton blooms shellfish feed on them and toxins can become concentrated in shellfish, but that's the only way I know people get sick from them."

The state monitors shellfish toxins and is responsible for posting signs warning people not to eat them. The county doesn't monitor algae blooms at all.

"We don't specifically have statistics on red-tide occurrences, and we've had no unusual reporting," Batson said. "There's anecdotal reporting of illness eye infections, ear infections, rashes like skin dermatitis. The most common problems [from ocean contact] are gastrointestinal ailments associated with human sewage, but we don't test for red tide at all."

No official studies are being conducted locally on the effect of harmful algae blooms on humans, but anecdotal evidence among local surfers is overwhelming. It's hard to find an avid surfer who hasn't experienced some symptoms associated with surfing during a red tide. There are also currently no local studies into whether agriculture runoff may increase the severity, duration, or occurrences of red tides.

Gordon Hensley, executive director of Environment in the Public Interest and

San Luis Obispo Coastkeeper watchdog organizations that make sure environmental laws are being obeyed believes agriculture runoff to be a significant problem, and one that will take years to fix.

"In our area, I'd say ag runoff is potentially the largest problem, followed by stormwater runoff and sewage," Hensley said. "We spend a lot of our time focused on those issues."

click to enlarge SURFER GIRL :  Jennifer Jozwiak, a Shell Beach resident, now gazes out on the tranquil Pacific with trepidation: The otherwise healthy surfer gets sick nearly every time she surfs in the South County. - PHOTO BY JESSE ACOSTA
  • Photo by Jesse Acosta
  • SURFER GIRL : Jennifer Jozwiak, a Shell Beach resident, now gazes out on the tranquil Pacific with trepidation: The otherwise healthy surfer gets sick nearly every time she surfs in the South County.

# Only in the last two years has the agriculture industry been required to monitor its runoff, much less treat it. According to Hensley, that's a step in the right direction, but a very small step indeed.

"Imagine all these farms up here feeding into a drain, at the bottom of which is a test spot," said Hensley, drawing an inverted triangle in the air with his hands. "So you test and discover someone's not playing nice. Who? How do we determine that? Normal human reaction is to say, 'It's not us!' So you have to begin the process of testing each tributary, trying to discover who's in violation. That could take years, or the problem may be cumulative lots of violators. We don't think that's a good system. In a perfect system, each farm would be tested at the point of discharge, but that brings up the tension between what we can pay for and the significant results."

Hensley also sees another economic tension between our two major industries: tourism and agriculture.

"As a community, we want to manage our business in a way that doesn't kill our business," he said. "When we start posting news that Pismo Creek isn't safe for contact or that the CMC discharged raw sewage into the watershed, that hurts tourism. If we pile a lot of regulations on agriculture, it may decide it's not profitable to continue in business here. But waiving environmental responsibility is a very short-term strategy. Being environmentally responsible is good business in the long-term."

Hensley also realizes that the county's limited testing is better than none.

"It absolutely goes back to budget and staffing," he said. "How much of their tax dollars are citizens willing to spend on this?"

A Public Policy Institute of California survey showed that 90 percent of Californians say that the condition of our coast is important to them personally, 71 percent are in favor of establishing more marine reserves off our coast, 60 percent believe the federal government isn't doing enough to protect the coastal environment of the United States, and 50 percent say the state's not doing enough to protect the California coast.

But will those numbers translate into action?

When Hensley looks at what limited water testing is being done, he sees mostly positive signs.

"We still have time here. Our water's still pretty good. Yes, there are indicators that not everything is swell, but we still have time to make things better. We just need to get a move on. It's much easier and cheaper to address our problems now before things are really a mess," he said.

In addition to Coastkeeper, other organizations are working to protect the environment. Surfrider, more than any other, is pushing for more action locally.

Tim Tringali coordinates the local Surfrider Foundation's Blue Water Task Force, a group that promotes ocean health.

"We're still in the very beginning stages of where we'd like to go, and what we don't want to do is burn any bridges too early," Tringali said, "but we're seeing sewage spills, seeing people get sick in South County. Surfrider is attempting to collect data on the Central Coast, but so far, data hasn't shown us anything we haven't expected. Most of the data we see aren't too bad.

"The county's [Environmental Health Department has] been working with us," Tringali continued. "The big thing we'd like to see with the county is additional public education. We've got people getting sick in the South County and there're definitely issues of poor water quality in winter. Currently, the only methods of contacting the public are posted signs and a web site. We'd like to see regular water quality [information] posted in newspapers and other media outlets."

Because he's heard so much anecdotal evidence of ocean-related illness, Tringali is surprised there's no smoking gun.

"We expected to take our ocean-illness forms people turn in and compare the dates to when the county posted warnings, but we've seen no correlation," said Tringali, whose day job is at an environmental consulting company.

That lack of connection may have something to do with the limited scope of the tests. Perhaps the county isn't testing for the correct things.

"It's a brutal issue, and there's a lot at stake," Tringali said. "Surfers are an indicator species to some extent, and if they're getting sick, there's something to be said about that. Surf the day after a heavy rain, and you're putting yourself in harm's way, but in summer there's no reason we know of why people keep getting sick."

It keeps coming back to harmful algae blooms, which are exacerbated by water temperature. Several noteworthy scientists from Alaska to Baja put out an advisory last summer claiming that the nearshore coastal water temperatures had significantly increased. In their words, the seasonal upwelling in the spring of last year did not occur. What's that mean?

The scientists claimed there was only a quarter of the normal larval recruitment. Upwelling brings in nutrient-rich waters, and numerous fish populations are dependent upon them for successful survival rates and recruitment. This theory also suggests that fishermen may not be to blame for all the closures that have occurred in the fisheries. Over-fishing isn't the only thing that depletes fish populations.

What seems most clear is that something is happening in our oceans that we don't yet understand, and whatever it is, it appears to be causing illness in some of the people who come in contact with the water.

Agriculture isn't required to treat its run-off, which can contain everything from pesticides to fertilizers to animal waste. Air pollution is responsible for almost one-third of the toxic contaminants and nutrients that enter coastal areas and oceans. Studies say that every eight months, nearly 11 million gallons of oil run off our streets and driveways into our waters that's the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. In California alone, 1.5 billion gallons of sewage containing 120 tons of mass solids (sewage sludge) are discharged into the Pacific Ocean every single day.

Is it any wonder why surfers and swimmers continue to get sick from contact with the ocean?

"Today, I'm sick," surfer Jozwiak said on July 25, a Tuesday. "I've been sick since ... let's see ... I surfed Sunday."

Get involved!
You can learn more about Surfrider Foundation's San Luis Bay Chapter at its web site: The local Surfrider chapter organizes monthly beach clean-ups.

There's a day-long seminar called "Health of the Bay" scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 2, at Morro Bay Vet's Hall, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The public is invited.

ECOSLO is coordinating "Coastal Cleanup Day" on Saturday, Sept. 16, as well as working with the SLO County Partners for Water Quality on "Creek Day" on Saturday, Sept. 30. Last year's Coastal Cleanup Day boasted 48,250 volunteers statewide who picked up 970,000 pounds of trash and recyclable materials. Last year, 1,096 people turned out to participate in San Luis Obispo County, where they collected 3,566 pounds of trash and 889 pounds of recyclables. Call 544-1777 to volunteer.

Glen Starkey is so scared of the water he doesn't even shower anymore. Tell him to stay away from you at


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