Here's the heart of the riddle: How can the backcountry look so robust in some places and so moribund in others? How can it change so fast? One day the water is as clear as gin; the next it's like chowder.
Nobody truly knows why. The maddening riddle is now pursued by biologists, ecologists, hydrologists and a wagonload of other Ph.D.'s. Cheering them on are business leaders, tourism promoters and once indifferent politicians.
Not so long ago only fishermen and a handful of scientists gave a damn. One of the first to spot the trouble was captain Hank Brown, a dean among the guides of the Upper Keys. Impassioned but quiet-spoken, Brown has spent more time in the backcountry—roughly 8,000 days—than all the attending academics combined. "The only thing I have going for me," he says, "is that I look at it every day."
In the late 1980s Brown noticed patches of turtle grass dying in the western and central parts of the bay. Soon entire banks went bald, and the water turned muddy. The effect upon back-country fishing, a major industry of the Keys, was instantaneous.
Flycasting for tarpon, permit and bonefish depends on relatively clear water. Hard-core anglers won't pay $325 a day to flail blindly in the mud. They want to see their quarry; it's the essence of the sport, an indescribable high. As the backcountry got murky, Brown and other guides began losing clients to the still-crystal flats of the Bahamas, Belize and Mexico.
In the fall of 1990, Florida Bay suffered a staggering fish kill in Garfield Bight and other coves. Administrators of Everglades National Park showed scant interest in the problem until Brown and others began directing the media to the scene. For a place that depends on tourism, the only thing worse than the sight of bloated rotten fish is front-page headlines about bloated rotten fish. The kill was investigated. Lack of oxygen was blamed but not explained.
But by far the most shocking symptom of the bay's collapse was the massive floating clouds of algae that seemed to bloom wherever the sea grasses died. Phytoplankton mixed with wind-stirred sediments to transform healthy water into a bilious, rank-smelling broth. "First came the turbidity," Brown recalls. "Then the grass died. Then the root systems disintegrated, and the banks of the channels literally caved in."
In 29 years on the water he had never seen anything so ominous. Hank and his wife, Joy, videotaped the fish kills and the rotting sea grasses and sent out copies on cassettes. Hank went to government meetings to warn about what was happening in Florida Bay. Other guides, young and old, sounded the alarm, too.
One important tourist who heard about the crisis was George Bush. That the president loved fishing in the backcountry was a cause for great optimism by many Keys locals. If he couldn't do something to save the place, they reasoned, nobody could. And they made a point of telling him about it. During one bonefishing expedition, a guide scooped a handful of foul mud off the flat to show the president how the sea grass was dying.
But nothing happened after Bush went back to Washington. Nothing. Meanwhile Florida Bay not sicker.