On Tuesday July 19 at the Islander Resort in Islamorada, the Everglades Foundation co-hosted the Florida Bay Forever Forum with Florida International University and Florida Bay Forever, a new Keys-based non-profit organization focused on protection and restoration of the shallow subtropical estuary between the Everglades and the Florida Keys. The Forum was designed with the sole purpose of bringing together members of the Florida Keys community with scientists from agencies, academia, and environmental NGOs to share observations and discuss concerns regarding the Florida Bay seagrass die-off that began in the summer of 2015. The meeting began with presentations by Florida Bay scientists and was facilitated by Dr. Steve Davis, the Everglades Foundation’s Ecologist, and Captain Elizabeth Jolin, owner/operator of the Bay and Reef Company and co-founder of Florida Bay Forever.
Dr. Davis kicked off the afternoon with a presentation on “Everglades freshwater inflows and Florida Bay salinity” that highlighted how freshwater inflows to the bay from the Everglades have been greatly altered. Dr. Christopher Kavanagh, a scientist from Everglades National Park, presented on the observed conditions in the bay leading up to and following the 2015 seagrass die-off. Our understanding of the causes and outcomes of seagrass die-off in Florida Bay was the focus of Dr. Jim Fourqurean’s presentation. A professor of Biology at Florida International University and a researcher of Florida Bay since 1982, Dr. Fourqurean spoke about the 1987 seagrass die-off and the science that points to hyper-salinity and sulfide toxicity in triggering this disaster. Dr. Penny Hall, one of the state’s leading seagrass biologists from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, spoke about the long-term nature of seagrass habitat recovery in Florida Bay following the 1987 die-off. Finally, Robert Johnson, Director of the South Florida Natural Resources Center at Everglades National Park, spoke about Everglades Restoration, particularly projects that reduce discharges from Lake Okeechobee and flow “new” water south, as being the solution for preventing these disasters in Florida Bay.
Science presentations were followed by a nearly two-hour discussion and Q&A between Forum attendees and a panel of scientists expanded to include Dr. David Rudnick from Everglades National Park and Dr. Evelyn Gaiser from Florida International University. Among those in attendance were U.S. Congressman Carlos Curbelo, who spoke clearly about his plan to get the Central Everglades Planning Project authorized this year and the need for land acquisition in the Everglades Agricultural Area to store water south of Lake Okeechobee. Representatives from Bonefish and Tarpon Trust (BTT) and International Game Fish Association (IGFA) also participated in the discussion. Brooke Black, BTT’s Manager for the Florida Keys, and Jason Schratwieser, IGFA’s Conservation Director, spoke about their own experience and observations of fishery declines in Florida Bay linked to the existing die-off as well as their organization’s efforts to advance the science and understanding of these trends.