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This Kind of Detective Will Fish for Evidence

With 70% of the world's reefs threatened or damaged, scientists are turning to forensics to find what -- or who -- is harming these areas.

July 05, 2006|Lynn Marshall | Times Staff Writer

ASHLAND, Ore. — The most important rule for any criminal investigator: Preserve the crime scene. Strict records must be kept of who goes in, who comes out, what they touch and what they collect as evidence, from carpet fiber or bullet casings to human remains.

This is old news to "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" viewers or anyone who followed the O.J. Simpson case. Evidence that is not collected properly can be excluded at trial.

But what do you do if the crime scene is a coral reef?

"Perimeter tape won't work, and water flows in and out. Everything is a constant state of change," says Ken Goddard, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Forensics Laboratory.

You can't even take notes in pen, which as Goddard says, is fundamental for any detective. "You can't use ink in the water; it just doesn't work."

Goddard has been working for the last six months to figure out what will work. His goal is to use forensic methods to investigate damage to coral reefs and hold people responsible for actions that harm them.

Goddard's work is part of the International Coral Reef Initiative, or ICRI, a partnership of government and international organizations dedicated to preserving coral reefs.

No one questions that there has been a crime committed against the reefs. According to the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force, 70% of the world's reefs are threatened or harmed, and 20% of those are damaged beyond repair. Last year, in the waters surrounding the U.S. Virgin Islands, as much as 40% of the coral died.

But no one knows exactly why. Factors cited often include overfishing, climate change, pollution and too much coastal development.

In June, President Bush created the world's largest marine conservation area, setting aside 140,000 square miles around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, "in order to permanently protect the area's pristine coral reefs and unique marine species."

David Gulko, a coral reef ecologist with Hawaii's land and natural resources department, is the leader of the partnership's project. He says it grew out of a discussion at a conference last year in Australia.

"The people who have the training to do the work underwater on the reef are scientists and approach the problem as scientists. The people who have the investigative training don't have the training to work underwater," Gulko says. He put together a group of scientists and law enforcement professionals to come up with a solution.

Goddard was a natural fit. A former deputy sheriff in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties, he set up and ran the Scientific Investigation Unit of the Huntington Beach Police Department for 12 years. In his spare time, he writes crime novels, loosely based on his work.

In 1979, he was hired by the federal fish and wildlife agency to set up a forensics laboratory for the service.

The laboratory, which opened in Ashland in 1989 and is still the only marine forensic lab in the country, changed wildlife law enforcement.

The lab is a cross between a natural history museum and a state-of-the-art biology and computer laboratory. The 24 scientists at the lab do everything from DNA and fingerprint analyses to autopsies and data mining of seized computer files.

"Having the lab made us better investigators and made us feel like professionals. When it opened, we started making cases that we could never have made before," says Los Angeles-based Special Agent Marie Palladini, a 27-year Fish and Wildlife agent.

Scientists hope that certain evidence -- fragments of a dead brain coral, soil samples, tiny scrapings of paint that show where a boat bumped over the reef -- can be used to prove that an oil spill, cyanide poisoning, fertilizer or septic runoff had occurred and help track down the responsible parties.

Goddard, 59, has had to take a crash course in scuba diving to do the work. "When we had our first meeting, everything I suggested, everyone else there would shake their heads and say 'No, that won't work in the water.' Now I know why."

Some of the adaptations that Goddard and the rest of the team have developed include marking the perimeter with buoys, and numbering and photographing samples such as paint fragments on coral rocks.

The scuba diving investigators will use dive sleds, such as the one seen in "Mission: Impossible III," to move quickly around the reef while preserving their air supply. They'll take notes with special pencils on slates, which are photographed before they are erased.

Gulko, the project leader, says there has been some concern that the high-tech nature of some of the equipment will preclude developing nations with limited resources from participating in the reef project. He says one goal of the project is to provide lower-tech adaptations that still conform to the desired evidentiary standard.

"The goal is to give the parties involved the training and tools to put together a good, solid professional investigation," Gulko says. "And you may identify a responsible party, someone who can make some kind of restitution."

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