Florida Bay, which is situated between the tip of the Florida mainland and the Keys, was once one of the most productive sport-fishing grounds in the western hemisphere. Now it is teetering on the edge of ecological disaster. Indeed, it may already have begun an irretrievable slide. Over the past five years, and increasingly over the last two, the lure-gobbling schools of red drum, sea trout, snook and ladyfish that once made the Bay's fecund banks and flats a sure thing for anglers at every level of skill have dwindled. Tarpon are still fairly abundant, but for the most part only during their spring migration, and the remaining bonefish are found far from their traditional grounds. Ten or 20 years ago, a sport-fishing guide had only to run five minutes out of Islamorada, the famed fishing port located approximately halfway between Miami and Key West, to get into schools of all sorts. Now it takes a run of an hour or even more.
The problem is particularly acute in Everglades National Park, which bounds Florida Bay on the north. The park is a 2,100-square-mile reach of wet saw-grass prairies, hardwood hammocks, mangrove swamps and brackish estuaries that control the fate of all wildlife—terrestrial, avian or marine—in South Florida. The estuaries of the park are nurseries for nearly every game fish in the Bay. They are at the heart of the elaborate, fragile food chains in the Glades, whose final links are such species as the bald eagle, the tiny Key white-tail deer and alligators. We had come to the park to see what was wrong.
"Here's one problem that nobody has explained yet." said Hank Brown, a fishing guide from Islamorada, slowing his skiff to a halt in three feet of water. Rick Ruoff, another Islamorada guide, stopped his skiff as well. We had been running over healthy turtle grass, the hideaway and home for hundreds of marine invertebrates on which many fish feed. The green, undulating bottom now gave way to a patchy stretch of brown, dead vegetation. In these patches the only touch of green was a slimy fungus clinging to the withered clumps of grass. It looked like a submarine lawn that had been invaded by chinch bugs.
The normal salinity in these flats is about 37 parts per thousand. Now it's up to 42 or 44. "I asked Gary Davis, the park's marine biologist, to look into the problem two months ago. He said he'd get right back to me but I haven't heard a word yet," Brown said.
Even where the turtle grass is healthy, there is a paucity of fish. "It's gotten so bad," Ruoff said, "that I've been boning up on my bird watching. You bring a client in here at $125 a day and he wants to catch fish. At the rate things are going, pretty soon all we'll have are bird watchers. And then the birds will go, too, with no fish to sustain them."
Ruoff, 30, studied biology at the University of Miami and is commodore of the Islamorada Fishing Guides Association, of which Brown is secretary. Their 2-year-old organization, to which 50 of Islamorada's 60 or so licensed guides belong, was formed to put pressure on government agencies in hopes of bringing the fishing back to normal. Ruoff, Brown and many of the guides are also members of the Everglades Protection Association, which was founded last February. The EPA membership includes such top saltwater fly-fishermen as Billy Pate, Bob Deliere, Carl Navarre, Lefty Kreh, Stu Apte and Jim Lopez. Pate, 48, who is chairman of the EPA's board of directors, was fishing with Brown this day, along with Hercules Paul Zagoras, a Chicago-area attorney and sportsman. I was fishing with Ruoff.
"Salinity is certainly the basic problem," said Pate in his soft Carolina drawl. "Or to put it more pointedly, a lack of fresh water through the Glades."
Park Superintendent John Good and Davis, the biologist, agree with the sport fishermen that water balance is indeed the root of the problem. But it is a tough, gnarled root to cut. Basically what has happened over the past 75 years, and most rapidly in the past 20, is that the normal freshwater flow into the Everglades and through them into Florida Bay has been diverted—through flood-control projects and freshwater supply systems—to the heavily populated areas between Palm Beach and Miami and to the west coast of Florida, from Fort Myers to Naples. Irrigation projects for farming areas have further depleted the freshwater supply.
Before South Florida began to develop as a resort region and, later, as a second home for hordes of sun-loving Americans, the fresh water of central Florida drained down the Kissimmee River into Lake Okeechobee, then slid slowly southward and into the Everglades, which were known to the Seminole Indians as Pa-hay-okee—The River of Grass. Fresh water ranging in depth from a few inches to no more than four or five feet crept southward to Florida Bay, soaking the root systems of the ubiquitous saw grass and recharging the Biscayne Aquifer, a highly porous bed of limestone 110 feet deep, which is the only barrier against saltwater infiltration of the mainland.
Because salt water is heavier than fresh, the fresh water stayed near the surface, sustaining the Everglades' abundant—and in some cases unique—forms of life. When the saw grass died seasonally, it compacted on the bottom, rotted and built up a covering layer of muck that in some spots was 13 feet deep. With the gradual drying of the Glades, fires that in the old days merely helped to recycle saw-grass nutrients into the system now began to burn exposed roots as well. The saw-grass infernos of the early 1970s, following Florida's worst drought in history, actually burned into the muck, just as fire will burn a peat bog. Because highly organic soil oxidizes at a rate of about an inch a year when it is exposed to the air, the Everglades could in time become a bare, dead coral reef. The thickest layer of muck is now only seven feet deep.