The Florida Keys environment, always sensitive to changes brought on by man and nature, now faces a new slate of challenges in 2018 while recovering from Hurricane Irma.
In addition to the estimated 1,200 Keys homes destroyed or severely damaged, and the 1,600-plus Keys vessels sent to the bottom or onto rocky shorelines, changes to the natural environment remain stark.
In areas, fringe mangroves along the Keys and offshore islands remain denuded of leaves. Hammock trees that stood for centuries were uprooted.
The Keys coral reef has been described by resource managers as bruised but not destroyed, although months of increased turbidity and a focus on upland recovery has limited the extent of underwater expeditions.
As the year ends, Florida Bay advocates fear the possibility of an increased algal bloom extending its reach across the northern bay. Incalculable amounts of seagrasses blown north carpet vast areas and could trigger a damaging bloom, bay advocates warn.
In other notable 2017 events on the Keys environment:
Staff with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission came to the Keys in August to conduct three of the first public workshops on proposals to allow a highly limited harvest of the giant fish.
Goliath grouper, formerly known as jewfish, have been protected from all harvest since 1990. That has allowed the population to recover but the extent is unknown. FWC commissioners will hear a report on the statewide workshops at their February meeting.
In the Keys, a majority of people attending workshops in the Lower and Middle Keys advocated some type of restricted harvest. One proposal could limit the take to 100 Goliath grouper statewide. In Key Largo, a large turnout of divers urged the no-take law to remain in effect.
With concern about rising sea levels exacerbated by king tides that can flood low-lying roads, Monroe County commissioners this year ordered work at some affected areas, along with plans for future improvements.
“The term ‘king tide’ is a non-scientific term used to describe naturally occurring, exceptionally high tides that take place when the sun and moon’s gravitational pull align making the oceans bulge,” Key West spokeswoman Alyson Crean said before November’s high tides.
County commissioners also endorsed proposals to increase some building heights, provided the added height includes raising the structure’s elevation to limit water damage.
In January, state officials brought in two python-hunting experts from India’s Irula tribe, famed for their prowess at finding big snakes. In two days, the tribesmen captured four pythons on North Key Largo. One snake measured nearly 16 feet long and is believed to be largest ever found in the Keys.
A November meeting in Key Largo held by the FWC invited residents to volunteer for python eradication efforts in the Keys or in South Florida wild lands. At that same meeting, residents recounted sightings of a water monitor, a large and potentially dangerous lizard seen near Key Largo canals. At last report, the monitor remained at large.
Sarah Fangman in July was named the new superintendent of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Previously superintendent of the Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary in Georgia, Fangman replaced interim superintendent Ed Lindelof.
Lindelof came to the Keys in 2016 after former Superintendent Sean Morton, a nine-year Keys manager, and longtime Deputy Superintendent Mary Tagliareni were moved out of their posts following an agency investigation into a “hostile work environment” complaint. Details of the complaint were never made public. Morton and Tagliareni remain with the national sanctuary program but this year were reassigned to work in South Carolina and Michigan, respectively.
Lisa Symons, who came in as acting deputy superintendent in the Upper Keys, has taken the job on a permanent basis.
In other federal concerns, county commissioners expressed deep concern over proposed budget cuts at the Environmental Protection Agency that could gut water-quality monitoring in Keys waters.
Not so special?
The Keys have a large number of protected species but may have slightly fewer in 2018.
The Florida Keys mole skink was turned down in October by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in a request to declare the small lizard an endangered species. The Keys mole skink, never numerous, reportedly is found only along sandy beach areas in the Lower Keys.
“Because they live on shorelines, Florida Keys moles skinks are imminently threatened by rising seas,” says the Center for Biological Diversity.
The Monroe County population of ospreys was listed by the state FWC as a “species of special concern” since the fishing birds were suspected of being a distinct species. But the FWC in July accepted a study which argues that the Keys ospreys are the same as mainland ospreys, and dropped the status listings.
On the up side, the Florida Key deer population suffered losses from Irma and a screwworm infestation in 2017, but biologists say enough deer survived to rebuild a healthy population in the Lower Keys.
Kevin Wadlow: 305-440-3206