Cathy Zollo writes in the Naples (FL) Daily News that commercial fishermen along the Southwest Florida coast are reporting a massive dead zone that contains no marine life in an area of the Gulf of Mexico that has traditionally been a rich fishing ground. They want scientists and government agencies to find out what?s causing it, but scientists are baffled.

?It?s killed a lot of the bottom because recently a lot of little bottom plants are coming to the surface dead and rotten out in the Gulf,? says Tim Daniels, a Marathon Key fish-spotting pilot who has been flying over the Gulf for more than 20 years.

Fisherman are calling the area ?Black Water.? It?s not the familiar red tide, which is a naturally occurring microscopic organism?it isn?t red and doesn?t smell bad. It?s not an oil spill. They describe it as viscous and slimy water with what looks like spider webs in it.

No one knows where it originated but it?s moving into the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Created by Congress in 1990, the 2,800-square-mile sanctuary is the largest coral reef in the United States. Part of it is a nursery, feeding and breeding ground that supports a variety of marine species and the multimillion-dollar Florida fishing industry that brings in almost 20 million pounds of seafood each year.

Billy Causey, superintendent of the Sanctuary, says their problems include global warming?extended periods when the Gulf waters aren?t cooling in the winter?and the growing impact of human activity along coastlines. ?We?re seeing accelerated problems around periods of elevated temperatures,? he says.

Scientists with Mote Marine Laboratory based in Sarasota say they are aware of the black water phenomenon but haven?t yet tested any water samples. Erich Bartels, staff biologist at the Lab?s Center for Tropical Research in the Keys, says he?s only seen samples too old for testing that were brought in by crabbers. ?If you held it up to the light, it had a blackish tint to it,? he says. ??If you have black water, there is something going on. It?s some kind of dead zone.?

Daniels says he first noticed the black water when he went out in mid-January. When he was flying over water that was 50 feet deep and north of the Keys, he began to notice a change in the water color. ?I thought, ?What in the world is going on here??? Daniels says. ?I went out to the northwest and it was solid black.? Although there are almost no fish in the zone, the few fish that fishermen found there are acting strangely. ?You?d see them here and there, but they were jumping and running, not stopping?and acting different,? Daniels says, ?Like they didn?t want to be there.?

Mike Richardson has been fish-spotting for 25 years and says the black water stands out next to the other water, which is normally a green color. He?s quit flying over it. ?There?s no sense going into it,? he says. ?You can?t see anything.?

Whatever it is, it?s effecting the fishing industry. ?I?ve net-fished for mackerel all my life,? Daniels says. ?This is the first year that we haven?t caught one Spanish mackerel in the Marathon area. They?re not there.?

Fisherman Howie Grimm, who has been fishing since he was 15, says, ?It?s something totally different from anything I?ve seen. We have to figure out what it is. There?s no fish in it. It?s like dead water.?

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