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Florida Bay Relapse Threatens Ecosystem


Florida Bay is a shallow estuary nestled between the South Florida mainland and the Keys. It's been a favorite fishing ground for people like baseball great Ted Williams and President George H. W. Bush. In the early 1990s, the bay's ecosystem collapsed. Since then a massive Everglades restoration program has started replumbing the system, sending fresh water into Florida Bay. Now there are troubling signs that it is not working.

NANCY KLINGENER, BYLINE: Fishing guide Tad Burke is right at home on the water. It only takes a half hour for Burke to steer his skiff from his neighborhood boat ramp in Tavernier to Rankin Key. That's a mangrove island just off the ragged southern edge of the Florida peninsula. What he sees worries him.

TAD BURKE: This used to be one of my favorite areas to fish. This place used to be loaded with snook and redfish and tarpon laying off the edge of the flats out here. Now it's an area I wouldn't even consider stopping in.

KLINGENER: It's not only the big game fish that clients pay big money to chase that are missing. It's the little glass minnows and shrimp and stone crabs.

BURKE: You don't see anything. There is no life here. It's just dead seagrass, a few cassiopeas that are drifting by, which is a jellyfish. But other than that, you see no bait, no life, nothing. It's just all dead.

KLINGENER: For people who live and work on Florida Bay, the seagrass die-off that started last summer is like some kind of nightmare deja vu. Jim Fourqurean began to map seagrass in the bay in 1982. He was an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia.

JIM FOURQUREAN: Florida Bay in the early '80s was a beautiful, clear water fishing heaven.

KLINGENER: Fourqurean returned to the bay as a grad student to get his Ph.D. Now he's director of marine research in the Keys for Florida International University. He was there when local fishermen raised the alarm about a seagrass die-off in 1987. South Florida was going through a drought. And Florida Bay no longer gets the freshwater it used to from the mainland Everglades because of development. The bay went super saline, one and a half times as salty as seawater. The drought finally broke in 1991.

FOURQUREAN: When it started to rain again, then algae blooms started up, and they were really fierce.

KLINGENER: More seagrass died. Every storm stirred up the sediment. Florida Bay's famous clear water was a murky mess.

FOURQUREAN: I remember vividly driving across Rankin Lake in Florida Bay feeling sick to my stomach because this beautiful clear water place had turned from the most beautiful place I'd ever been to a brown scummy pond. It was just heartbreaking.

KLINGENER: Wealthy and connected people helped sell the initial $8 billion deal for Everglades restoration between the state and federal governments in 2000. After a few years, the algae blooms dissipated. The seagrasses started coming back. One restoration project redistributes water from a canal at the southern edge of the mainland.

JERRY LORENZ: Unfortunately, it does not function when there's a drought.

KLINGENER: Jerry Lorenz is the research director for Audubon Florida. He's worked on the bay for 26 years.

LORENZ: Each one of these completed projects by itself only does a little bit. It's when they all fit together that they'll do a lot.

KLINGENER: El Nino ended South Florida's most recent drought, bringing lots of rain in what is normally the dry season. So water managers are sending huge pulses of freshwater out to the coasts on the mainland. That's likely to cause problems for those estuaries. That frustrates ecologists like Lorenz.

LORENZ: It's time to start thinking about this as one system.

KLINGENER: The scientists and fishing guides who work on the bay are waiting to sea if the latest seagrass die-off will trigger another catastrophic cycle of algae blooms and a collapse that could last for years. For NPR News, I'm Nancy Klingener in Tavernier, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.