By Jerry McBride
Without a ripple, the 10-foot alligator eased beneath the surface to blend his dark form into the lush seagrass until my kayak passed safely overhead.
Bad news, buddy. There ain't no seagrass, and more than your tail is hanging out.
The big reptile's eons-old escape strategy would have been effective less than a year ago in Florida's Banana River No Motor Zone (NMZ). With its renowned population of giant redfish, this shallow preserve adjacent to the sprawling NASA Cape Canaveral space complex is a launch pad for kayak anglers seeking big fish and immunity from the powerboats that sometimes inundate surrounding waters.
Grown gators don't have to worry about hiding from predators. But they have to eat. Without seagrass, the entire food chain falls apart—including the ultimate apex predator.
"People have no concept of the long-term effect this could have on the economy and jobs in Florida," said Warren Falls, Managing Director of Ocean Research & Conservation Associates (ORCA), a group of biologists who are monitoring a similar massive disappearance of grass farther south. "Even home prices. Every town along Florida's east coast is dependent to a large degree on the water."
It is impossible to overstate the vital significance of seagrass to Florida—not just as the linchpin in the biological food chain, but in economic terms. Florida's recreational fishing industry lures an estimated $5.5 billion annually to the state, and it's not a stretch to say that in many areas, no seagrass means no tourists. Already, many fishing guides are hauling their clients 30 miles or more to find grass and fish.
"We're seeing fish moving south from the dead areas, trying to survive by crowding into what grass remains," said Falls, a dedicated fly fisherman.
Unfortunately, this isn't an isolated incidence of a single estuary gone bad. Florida's kayak anglers are witnessing the same phenomenon in long sections of the much larger Mosquito and Indian River lagoons. According to Florida Oceanographic Society's Dr. Mark Perry, data presented at a recent symposium on the topic estimates the loss just in the northern end of the Indian River Lagoon at approximately 35,000 acres, and another 32,000 acres in Indian River County to the south.
Those two numbers alone represent a loss of almost 50 percent of normal grass coverage in the 156-mile-long lagoon. But that doesn't take into account mile after mile of bare bottom in the adjacent Mosquito Lagoon and Banana River, nor in the southern end of the IRL. According to Perry, Johnson's seagrass covered 95 percent of the bottom in the Stuart area prior to polluted discharges from Lake Okeechobeee in 2012. That number dropped to an abysmal 2 percent following Corp of Engineer releases triggered by Tropical Storm Isaac.
It isn't just the inshore ecosystem that is being affected. Offshore snapper, grouper and many other species are reliant on estuary seagrass to nurture their young.
"The three most productive ecosystems on the planet are rain forests, coral reefs and grassflats," explained Dr. Edie Widder, ORCA director. "This is equivalent to a rain forest dying overnight."
The sudden collapse (so far confined to Florida's east coast) has left biologists scrambling for answers. At this point, there are none, as data is collected and correlations to runoff and sediment containing phosphates, sulfates and other contaminant levels are studied.
On the other hand, the ongoing seagrass saga in the St. Lucie Estuary and southern Indian River Lagoon is tragically far too well documented. As author Karl Hiaasen (Miami Herald columnist, fly fishing champion and documenter of the perversions that keep Florida so dear to late-night comedians) succinctly sums it up, "When it rains, the government pushes the flush lever and dumps all the Lake Okeechobee crap on us."
A brief history for those who haven't struggled through the periodic purging so disgusting that the local health department inevitably has to post signs prohibiting contact with the most biologically diverse chunk of water in North America:
Following a 1928 hurricane that sloshed Lake Okeechobee over its banks and killed several thousand people, the Army Corps of Engineers built a dike around the 700-square-mile lake. Prior to dam construction, water departing the lake trickled over the south shoreline and spread across the Everglades, eventually delivering its precious cargo of fresh water into Florida Bay. With the natural escape valve to the south now blocked, engineers constructed canals and locks to release excess water east into the St. Lucie River at Stuart, and west to connect with the Caloosahatchee system at Ft. Myers.
Sugar growers quickly claimed the drying muck south of the lake, converting 700,000 acres of former watershed to agriculture. North of the lake, engineers exacerbated the oncoming disaster by straightening the Kissimmee River; fertilizer-laden water that had previously filtered through meandering marshes now rushed from cattle ranches, orange groves and rapidly developing communities from Orlando south to mingle with the polluted waste-water Big Sugar back-pumped into the lake.
The end result: Lake Okeechobee became the largest retention pond in America. Toxic silt suffocates downstream seagrass beds, oyster bars and even offshore reefs every time water managers are forced to dump its excess water during major rain events. You may have read that it rains pretty often in Florida.
Exhaustive studies have shown the only practical solution is to redirect the flow southward as Nature intended. However, massive political contributions and lobbying by those same powerful agricultural interests safeguard business as usual (made profitable by artificial federal price supports). A federal judge in Washington recently threw out a Rivers Coalition lawsuit challenging the discharges.
Her reasoning: The group had waited too long to file a grievance. In other words, the government-sponsored pollution has been going on for so long that its citizens no longer have a right to expect clean water. So not only are we stuck with the estuary- and economy-killing sludge that violates every aspect of the Clean Water Act; anyone in the U.S. who consumes sugar is actually subsidizing the atrocity.