Are We Losing Paradise in Florida?

By author of The Duck Blog

A Growing Environmental Crisis Threatens Sunshine State Fish and Wildlife

Fish and wildlife habitat in southern Florida, from Lake Okeechobee south to Florida Bay and the Everglades, is in peril. Photo © Vanishing Paradise

Many duck blogs discuss methods and strategies we can use to become better hunters, and sometimes, we take a light-hearted look at the idiosyncrasies of our lifestyle. Too rarely, however, do we discuss habitat. And that’s too bad, because as every duck hunter knows, waterfowl — all wildlife, actually — depend on quality habitat, and their populations wax and wane in sync with the quality of their surroundings.

With that in mind, I thought it was important to alert readers to a burgeoning environmental crisis in Florida. I realize most of you don’t hunt ducks and geese in the Sunshine State, but it’s a good bet that at least a few of the birds you East Coast and even Midwestern waterfowlers see every fall have spent some time in Florida. And the relative vigor of any flyway’s habitat is only as strong as the weakest link in that chain.

Basically, fish and wildlife habitat in southern Florida — essentially from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay and including the Everglades — is in peril. Worse, few folks are talking about this. According to Vanishing Paradise, a program of the National Wildlife Federation, the concerns are many. Algae blooms have destroyed more than 47,000 acres of seagrass in St. Lucie and the Indian River Lagoon. Also, salinity in Florida Bay — the bay between the Florida mainland and Florida Keys — is at twice the normal level. Further, a toxic 2016 algae bloom covered about 239 square miles on Lake Okeechobee. In addition, the group says, the Everglades are slowly choking to death, and the Biscayne Aquifer is slowly drying up because of low water flows in the Everglades.

Those might not seem like problems that affect waterfowl, but Bill Cooksey, of Vanishing Paradise, summed up the connection.

“When habitat declines, duck declines follow,” he said.

“When you consider the Everglades (water) flows (have been) reduced to such an extent the habitat is changing fast, along with extensive algae blooms on Okeechobee, there’s no doubt critical waterfowl habitat in the region is declining rapidly.”

Duck hunters can help spread the news about the worsening habitat degredation in southern Florida. Photo © Banded

But there’s good news, according to Vanishing Paradise. The problem is man-made and can be fixed.

“Too much polluted water is pumped to the east and west coasts from Lake Okeechobee, while too little freshwater reaches the Everglades and Florida Bay,” according to the group’s website. “This unbalanced flow of water damages coastal estuaries and prompts outbreaks of toxic green algae that slime Florida’s beaches. Meanwhile, Florida Bay … is starved of freshwater. The lack of freshwater causes salinity to spike and kills seagrass beds, an important habitat that shelters and feeds the bay’s abundant fish and shellfish. When dead seagrass decomposes, it reduces the amount of oxygen in the water, creating a ‘dead’ zone and killing fish.

“The solution is simple — send clean water south, as it would naturally flow, to the Everglades National Park and Florida Bay.”

To accomplish that, the group is working to secure money and ensure implementation of a Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, which was approved in 2000. It’s also collaborating with the Florida Wildlife Federation to “elevate the voices of sportsmen and women who value and wish to protect and restore the Everglades.”

How can you help? Get involved. Or, if nothing else, discuss the situation with like-minded folks, and help increase awareness of this issue. We’ll all benefit if passionate people keep this problem at the forefront and demand solutions from government.

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