Environment

Florida Bay at 'knife's edge of collapse'

Jim Fourqurean, a seagrass expert with Florida International University, explains to Stephanie Scuderi, a Florida Keys Community College trustee and Centennial Bank vice president in the Upper Keys, how hypersalinity can destroy seagrass in Florida Bay.
Jim Fourqurean, a seagrass expert with Florida International University, explains to Stephanie Scuderi, a Florida Keys Community College trustee and Centennial Bank vice president in the Upper Keys, how hypersalinity can destroy seagrass in Florida Bay.

Not even the wettest winter in South Florida's weather records likely will curtail a massive seagrass die-off now occurring in Florida Bay, experts caution.

"Florida Bay is on the knife's edge" of collapse, said Everglades Foundation wetland ecologist Stephen Davis at a Monday awareness event held in Islamorada.

"It looks exactly like it did in 1987," said Jim Fourqurean, head of the Seagrass Ecosystems Research Lab at Florida International University, referring to Florida Bay's last major seagrass die-off that triggered a nasty algae bloom.

"Now for the second time, it's happening again," Fourqurean said. "If it is happening with greater frequency, it's because of the missing water."

It took the bay's seagrass nearly 20 years to recover, he noted, and fisheries still may not have recovered fully.

Everglades advocates have been campaigning for new regulations and construction projects that will send more fresh water from Central Florida and Lake Okeechobee back toward its natural flow through Everglades National Park and into Florida Bay.

Last summer's drought caused "hypersalinity" in Florida Bay, Davis said. In places, the salt content in Florida Bay -- historically a brackish environment of mixed fresh and salt water -- was twice that found in the Atlantic Ocean.

The end result has been at least 25,000 acres of dead seagrass -- and estimates of up to 50,000 acres.

"This is really upsetting," said flats guide Steve Friedman, who fishes the area near Whipray Basin for trout and snook.

 More water reached the bay in this unusually wet winter but the lack of a large storage area to contain fresh water from rain meant billions of gallons had to be funneled into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

"We have three estuaries in crisis right now," Davis said.

Even if more fresh water had reached Florida Bay this winter, the damage from the summer's drought had already occurred.

In extremely salty conditions, oxygen levels in the bay water drop. That causes a sharp increase in naturally occurring hydrogen sulfides, which produces a rotten-egg smell and can destroy the underground roots of seagrass.

"The smell tells us that it's something we want to move away from," Fourqurean said.

"People are talking about the threat of sea-level rise and that's something that might be 70 years off," said Islamorada Village Council member Mike Forster, an avid bay fishermen.

"What's happening in the bay is happening right now," he said. "This affects our entire way of life here."

U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who represents the Keys, said he strongly supports water-quality improvements for Florida Bay and South Florida but fears that tight federal budgets in a few years may cause Congress to cut back funding.

"I agree we need to get the reservoir done," Curbelo said. "But there are some stakeholder groups that are going to object."

"It's very disappointing to see where we are today after 15 or 20 years" of working on Florida Bay, County Commissioner George Neugent said.

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