February 5, 2020

KEVIN WADLOW/Free Press 
Islamorada guide Xavier Figueredo shows Stephanie Tiangco Carrion how to measure salinity in a Florida Bay 'hot spot' where the shallow waters are saltier than the Atlantic Ocean. The high salinity could harm recovering seagrasses.

KEVIN WADLOW/Free Press  Islamorada guide Xavier Figueredo shows Stephanie Tiangco Carrion how to measure salinity in a Florida Bay 'hot spot' where the shallow waters are saltier than the Atlantic Ocean. The high salinity could harm recovering seagrasses.

FLORIDA KEYS — Florida Bay could be threatened by a new seagrass die-off unless a rare wet winter brings enough rain, a leading environmental group warns.

Salinity levels in some Florida Bay basins already have risen to exceed ocean salinity, which scientists fear could trigger another collapse of the seagrass environment critical to wildlife and fishing, staff with the Everglades Foundation said last week.

“There already is a freshwater deficit and it’s only January. We’ve got four or five months left in the dry season and [salinity] is only going to continue to increase,” said Steve Davis, the Everglades Foundation’s senior ecologist.

Everglades restoration and its goal to increase freshwater flows to Florida Bay gained momentum over the last year but concern is growing over a recent plan to limit the amount of fresh water released from the Lake Okeechobee agricultural area, according to the Everglades Foundation.

“When we have a dry to drought year is when we get in trouble,” Davis said. “That’s when the dominoes start to fall.”

As part of Super Bowl LIV activities in Miami-Dade last weekend, the Miami Super Bowl Host Committee worked with conservation groups to create “Ocean To Everglades,” an initiative to raise awareness of Florida’s unique marine ecosystems.

The Everglades Foundation was a lead partner with the Ocean Conservancy and NFL Green to stage a pop-up “environmental village” in Miami’s Bayfront Park, site of several Super Bowl-related events.

Everglades Foundation Chief Executive Officer Eric Eikenberg said advocates planned to use the South Florida Super Bowl to persuade visiting state and federal officials to release more water to the south.

“We want to see water going under the Tamiami Trail bridges” to the southern Everglades, said Eikenberg. “We spent $200 million on those bridges and the whole idea was to provide freshwater flow.”

Water reaching Florida Bay through the Everglades provides the critical difference between historically brackish water and excessively salty water that kills seagrass, Davis said. In 2015, parts of Florida Bay were about double the salinity of ocean water.

“The Everglades is a world heritage site that is not getting enough water to sustain the wetlands and Florida Bay. There are weeks when zero water is flowing into the River of Grass,” Davis said. “That leads to chronic deprivation of water for Florida Bay.”

Last year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state’s South Florida Water Management District agreed to lower Lake Okeechobee water levels so the rainy wet season would not threaten to overwhelm the lake’s aging dikes. Much of that water was allowed to filter slowly into the southern Everglades. The lowered levels also limited “coastal dumps” of nutrient-laden lake water into the mainland St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers, where earlier releases had fueled harmful blue-green algae blooms.

Work on the large Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir and related projects to store and treat fresh water is years away from completion. Florida Bay advocates fear the massive estuary may not be able to recover from future degradation.

On Jan. 29, Florida Keys fishing guides aboard nine backcountry skiffs left the World Wide Sportsman’s Bayside Marina to carry state and international media representatives into Florida Bay to emphasize the critical importance of fresh water to the survival of the bay’s seagrass.

The last major Florida Bay seagrass die-off took place in 2015, following an earlier die-off in the late 1980s to early 1990s. In 2015, said Davis, “It was an open wound. Seagrass peeled off the bottom,” causing oxygen deprivation.

“Millions of fish died in the marina at Flamingo” in Everglades National Park, said Steve Friedman, commodore of the Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association. “They couldn’t get away fast enough.”

Hurricane Irma in 2017 added another blow to bay recovery.

“At times, it feels like we’re getting hit from all sides,” Friedman said. “We are seeing a tremendous change in the right direction. We know how to get there. We just have to keep pushing.”

“This is something worth fighting for,” added Daniel Andrews, a guide and executive director of Captains for Clean Water. “Nature is resilient. Everglades restoration is that opportunity.”

kwadlow@keysnews.com