Sunday, January 16, 2022

An Eco Year For the Records

Stepping Stones

Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. | Photo by Frank Steiger

As 2018 comes to a close, it is traditional for folks to exclaim “Happy New Year!” and to wish each other a healthy and prosperous 2019. In the case of Southwest Florida’s environment and ecosystems, I am not only wishing for a healthy upcoming year, I am begging, on my knees praying, that things get better. This has been a very tough year for our area, but there were a few bright spots to note. Let’s take a look a 2018.

The Ghost of Christmas Past: The hot topics last year were colorful… red tide and blue-green algae. Red tide is natural and has been around a long, long time. It was even recorded and noted by explorers more than 200 years ago. In 2005 a red tide bloom here in Florida was extensive and covered more than 500 square miles. Dolphins, manatees, sea turtles and fish lost their lives. Bottom dwelling marine life such as sponges, corals, crabs, sea urchins, turtles, fish and more lost their lives because of the lack of oxygen in the water. This bloom lasted for 13 months. Fortunately for our area, the 2005 outbreak was mainly north of us in Sarasota County up to Tampa Bay.

Also at this time the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) was five years into a multi-decade program. An original budget of $7.8 billion was approved to help restore the dying Everglades and bring it back to life by directing water flow to this once pristine wonder of the world. Eighteen above ground reservoirs totaling 180,000 acres for water storage were supposed to be built.

Twenty years into a 30-year plan, 12 of those reservoirs should be in place, according to my math. There must be a new system for adding and subtracting that was implemented. Two-thirds of the planned reservoirs are not complete, 2/3 of the way into the original plan. The Scrooges and Marleys of Florida are not playing nice.

The Ghost of Christmas Present: Here we are in 2018 and another red tide bloom is present, and has been around for, you guessed it, 13 months. From January, first through November 30th the death toll for manatees in the state is 772.

With an estimated population of 6,000, that’s 13% of them deceased in a year.

As of December 6th, 126 dolphins are known to have perished, more than 400 sea turtles are gone and birds are dropping from the sky. Fishermen offshore refer to the carcasses floating as a “graveyard.” The 2005 bloom was concentrated from Sarasota on northward. This current bloom encompasses those areas but has moved south to include Lee County and parts of Collier.

On a bright note, nine dolphin calves were born in the Marco River area this fall.

I am on the water here several times a week, checking the dolphins’ skin for discoloration, blotches or lesions. Their behavior is being monitored for any signs of stress. So far, so good here.

In the Everglades, now completing 18 years of an original 30-year plan of restoration, progress is way behind. Just before the November election the Senate approved a 6,500-acre reservoir to be built. Right after the election that land was re-leased to New Hope Sugar for an eight-year term. Who knows what will happen. Some good things are happening. U.S. 41 on the eastern boundary of the Everglades is being raised to allow water to again flow naturally to areas further south. This can help push back the intrusion of salt water that has been killing plants since that highway was built in the 1920s.

The blue-green algae from water releases in Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucie River and Caloosahatchee River have caused major damage to plant and animal life, and possibly disturbed estuaries and fisheries forever. These waters would have gone to the reservoirs for filtering, if they had been built in a timely manner.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come: In the case of Southwest Florida’s environment and ecosystems I am not only wishing for a healthy upcoming year, I am begging, on my knees praying, that things get better.

Bob is a Naturalist for a dolphin study team on board the Dolphin Explorer. He is the author of two books and a regular speaker at venues throughout the area. Bob loves his wife very much!

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