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Florida Bay’s ecology on the brink of collapse

Florida Bay’s ecology on the brink of collapse

Posted: Wednesday, August 12, 2009 8:01 pm
By: AP

 ISLAMORADA, Fla. (AP) — Boat captain Tad Burke looks out over Florida Bay and sees an ecosystem that’s dying as politicians, land owners and environmentalists bicker. He’s been plying these waters for nearly 25 years, and has seen the declines in shrimp and lobster that use the bay as a nursery, and less of the coveted species like bonefish that draw recreational sportsmen from around the world. “Bonefish used to be very prevalent, and now we don’t see a tenth of the amount that we used to find in the bay, and even around the Keys because the habitat no longer supports the population,” says Burke, head of the Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association. Experts fear a collapse of the entire ecosystem, threatening not only some of the nation’s most popular tourism destinations — Everglades National Park and the Florida Keys — but a commercial and recreational fishery worth millions of dollars. Florida Bay is a sprawling estuary at the state’s southern tip, covering nearly three times the area of New York City. The headwaters of the Everglades — starting some 300 miles north near Orlando — used to end up here after flowing south in a shallow sheet like a broad, slow-moving river, filtering through miles of muck, marsh and sawgrass. Historically, the bay thrived on that perfect mix of freshwater from the Everglades and saltwater from the adjacent Gulf of Mexico. It was a virtual Garden of Eden, home to a bounty of wading birds, fish, sea grasses and sponges. But to the north of the bay, man’s unforgiving push to develop South Florida has left the land dissected with roads, dikes and miles of flood control canals to make way for homes and farms, choking off the freshwater flow and slowly killing the bay. The ill effects extend even across the narrow spit of land that makes up the Florida Keys to the shallow coral reefs in the Atlantic Ocean. Many popular commercial fish like grouper and snapper begin their lives in the bay before migrating into the ocean to the reefs. “If Florida Bay heads south and there’s a lot less fish in there, well, when that’s done, it’s all over down here,” Burke says. “When that goes, your reefs are going to go, too, and it’ll just be a chain reaction. “You could argue that the bay has already collapsed,” he adds. Algae blooms block life-giving sunlight from penetrating the water’s surface. Sea grasses that filter the water and provide habitat for the food chain are dying. And some migratory birds aren’t returning. Published in The Messenger 8.12.09

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