Roseate Spoonbills Send Warning Signs About the Florida Everglades
Decades after they staged a major comeback from plume hunting, one of the world's most bizarre and beautiful birds is struggling in South Florida. Does this spell trouble for the entire Everglades ecosystem?
Frezza is Audubon Florida's research manager for the Everglades region, and a weekend fishing guide. He recently did a formal survey of the local fishing community to see if they have perceived a change in bonefish populations. Are those populations going up or down? The consensus: Nearly all of the more than 70 fishermen surveyed reported that they had seen a drastic decline.
"Something major has happened in Florida Bay," says Frezza, explaining that many shallow-water game fish, including bonefish and juvenile tarpon, need the same things as spoonbills: good water quality and lots of seafood. "If the food were there in the bay, fish should be there, too. But they're not."
The implications are huge, not only for the region's recreational fishing and the Florida Bay ecosystem but for the whole state. Florida Bay supports an annual $22 million stone crab fishery, a $59 million shrimp industry, and a spiny lobster fishery worth $40 million. Add to that the value of recreational fishing in the Everglades--an additional $1.2 billion a year.
Still, flood control and agriculture take priority over a balanced ecosystem, says Frezza. "We're last. At least that's the way it seems. But the mindset is slowly starting to shift."
In January a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held for the first phase of what's called the C-111 spreader canal, which when it's completed will redistribute the amount of freshwater the bay receives. If the rest of the C-111 project is operated as planned, raising water levels of certain structures should create a hydraulic ridge that will push water back toward Taylor Slough, the intended freshwater entry point to Florida Bay. Increasing freshwater flow through the slough will rehydrate parched wetlands and revitalize the populations of the small fish spoonbills eat.
Other recent developments include an initiative called the Central Everglades Planning Project, which bundles several restoration efforts instead of implementing them piecemeal. And last June Florida and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agreed on an $880 million plan to filter larger quantities of phosphorous from water flowing through the Everglades.
"The science in Florida Bay is helping to inform the policy work," Audubon Florida executive director Eric Draper told me before I departed for the Keys. "C-111 is a direct example. We've used information from the spoonbill research to help government better operate how that canal works. Our major objective is getting the right amount of freshwater into the Everglades, at the right time. If we do that, we'll have a greater number of spoonbills nesting in Florida Bay. If we don't . . ."
Conservationists continue to lobby for additional bridging over the Tamiami Trail, the road that forms the northern border of the park, acting as a dam and blocking the natural water flow through the Glades. They also lobby for continued research funding that helps gauge how restoration work is performing. Just as the restoration projects are coming online, both state and federal funds for ecosystem monitoring have experienced major cutbacks.
"I hope to see real policy changes that will help restore the Everglades and Florida Bay," Frezza tells me as we approach the last stop of the day, a tiny island called Jimmy Key, where he suspects we'll find spoonbills near shore. We climb aboard a skiff and begin poling the island's edge, beautifully buttressed and iridescent. Working our way through the shallows, we find more than a dozen downy spoonbill chicks cautiously peeking through the braided trees. With their fluffy feathers ruffling in a light breeze, they gaze out on the bay's pale-blue waters, waiting for their parents to return with a crop full of fish.
The scene is peaceful and serene, as if all is fine in Florida Bay. With the clouds clearing and gentle waves lapping our boat, it's easy to believe so. But decades of work show it won't become a reality without strong political will and continued efforts toward better long-term water management in the Everglades. With that, these isles may glow bright with fire once more.