Dying and dead floating seagrass and fish kills from low dissolved oxygen in Florida Bay are a main topic of conversation in the Florida Keys. According to the Everglades Foundation, lack of freshwater flow has killed 50,000 acres of sea grass; that’s double the size of Miami. Florida Keys residents, fishing guides, anglers, realtors, environmentalists, scientists and your average Joe are worried because marine life, flora and fauna are suffering.
However, according to Eric Eikenberg, chief executive officer of the Everglades Foundation, there is good news. On April 19, the federal house appropriations committee approved the 2017 Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill, which allocates about $37.4 million toward national security and energy and water infrastructure.
The funding is critical to restore the freshwater flow from central Florida to the Everglades.
Holly Raschein, who represents the Florida Keys in the Florida House of Representatives, said, “The Everglades and Florida Bay are not just state treasures, but national and international ones as well. This year, the State of Florida allocated more than $200 million to Everglades restoration. I hope that by making long-term investments at the state level, our counterparts at the federal level will continue to partner with us on projects like modifications to Tamiami Trail that will help restore more natural water flows.”
…An important next step is construction of a 2.6-mile Tamiami Trail Bridge with the groundbreaking expected in May. The first one-mile Tamiami Trail Bridge is open, assisting the sheetflow of water into Florida Bay.
Pete Frezza, research manager of the Everglades Region for Audubon Florida, said some of the worst seagrass die-off has occurred in areas that serve as primary foraging habitat for economically important gamefish such as snook, redfish and tarpon. These areas also are foraging grounds for iconic bird species such as great white heron and roseate spoonbill. To date, wading birds have had one of their most unproductive nesting seasons in decades in Florida Bay.
Salinity conditions in the bay this past summer were sustained at levels twice as high as normal. Lack of rain and freshwater from the upstream Everglades coupled with high temperatures created anoxic conditions in the bay, leading to the seagrass die-off and numerous documented fish kills.
Along with seagrass, researchers documented stressed and dying mangrove and buttonwood trees in the bay. “This is very unusual, as these are very salt- and low oxygen-tolerant species,” Frezza said.
Brooke Black, Bonefish & Tarpon Trust Florida Keys Initiative program manager, said, “What is most frustrating is we’ve been here before. About 25 years ago, we lit the fuse in Florida Bay, and the result was a major grass die-off, algal blooms, fish kills and a struggling recreational fishery. We were finally recovering from that event and we struck the next match.
“I think the science and angling community that witnessed the previous event agrees that the current downturn will top the demise of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Starting last summer, guides were reporting floating dead seagrass, putrid smells, dying black mangroves, accumulations of dead fish and a lack of targeted recreational species.
Additionally, local fishing tournament records over the past nine months note that more bonefish are being caught than redfish. This is particularly troubling because our local bonefish population is notably depressed and redfish were once our fish in a barrel.”
Scientists agree the system has to be restored with massive influxes of freshwater. Dr. Tom Van Lent, senior scientist at the Everglades Foundation said, “We’ve built so many canals and drained so much water that the natural flow is interrupted. Eighteen hundred miles of canals and dams break it up, with water control points and pump stations diverting the natural flow of water to coastal towns and cities.”
Jill Zima Borski has lived in Islamorada for 21 years and is a lifelong journalist and author. Her website is www.jill-zima-borski.com.