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Entries in Everglades (26)

Monday
Mar062017

Okeechobee Bass Fishery Thrives as Debate Rages About Discharges

Debate rages about what to do with excess water from Lake Okeechobee. Laden with nutrients, it feeds algae blooms and kills fish when discharged by the Corps of Engineers into coastal waters on both sides of southern Florida

But what about bass in the Big O? They're an integral part of a recreational fishery worth about $49 million to counties surrounding the 448,000-acre lake that is half the size of the state of Rhode Island.

"This is an iconic fishery, and yet all you hear about are the massive discharges and the algae blooms. You don't hear about the lake itself, other than it is the source," said Gene Gilliland, B.A.S.S. National Conservation Director.

Not to worry.

"They're doing great," said Andrea Dominguez, fisheries biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).  "We're doing a survey now (early December) and are seeing a lot of fish over 16 inches, and a couple above 24.

"People are happy. They're catching fish, especially on the north end of the lake," she added. "Bass are healthy and growing."

But sadly for coastal fisheries and residents alike, the lake's eutrophic water must be channeled east and west when it rises too high, both to keep the 70-year-old dyke from being breached and prevent drowning of the marshes, which are key not just for the health of the fishery, but the entire Okeechobee ecosystem. Before the dyke was built and the Big O altered from a natural lake to a hybrid impoundment, high water flowed south. It replenished the Everglades, which absorbed most of the nutrients, before sending the water on to vitalize Florida Bay.

The dyke was built to protect towns and farms south of the lake, following major hurricanes that struck South Florida during the 1920s, causing massive flooding and killing nearly 2,000. Additionally, the Corps installed water control structures to direct water via canals into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

With the lake walled off, much of the land around it was converted to agricultural use, with dairy farms and beef cattle ranching to the north and sugar cane and vegetable farming to the south. These added to the nutrient load of nitrogen and phosphorus already flowing into the Big O from the Kissimmee River watershed and developed areas to the north.

For decades runoff pollution has been a concern, both for the lake and the estuaries. But exceptionally high water, starting in January, forced heavier and more frequent discharges than normal, decimating the estuaries and garnering most of the headlines. In fact, an algae bloom covered 33 square miles  in the southern portion of the lake during May, no doubt nourished by that same high water.

Algae blooms occur regularly in many of Florida's southern freshwater fisheries, but usually they appear later in the year, when the water is warmer. "They are very difficult to predict," said Terrie Bates of the South Florida Water Management District. "They move with the wind. They can form and dissipate in a week's time."  

Fortunately, the Big O has proven resilient, thanks to its abundant aquatic vegetation, especially the fringe of bulrush on the lakeward side. It not only provides beneficial habitat directly, but helps dissipate wind and wave energy, allowing eel grass, spike rush, and pepper grass to grow in interior areas of the marsh.

And thanks to Corps discharges of dangerously high water.

"Excessive stages destroy this outer bulrush wall, which is then followed by damage to the interior marsh," said Amber Nabors, FWC's communications and marketing manager.  

"FWC puts high priority on efforts to maintain a healthy diversity, abundance, and distribution of aquatic vegetation in the lake to support the abundant fish and wildlife resources there.  We do this with both direct management actions and by closely working with partner agencies to influence water level management to include fish and wildlife benefits."

Those management actions include scraping, planting, and targeted herbicide treatments, as well as occasional burnings.

"We want the correct plants," said Dominguez. "We don't want stands of cattails to get too big, because we want the bulrush to grow."

Water hyacinths and water lettuce also are especially problematic because they grow so quickly and block waterways. The latter can be a problem both for navigation and for sustaining flow, which is critical for maintaining water quality.

High water and blocked flow are an especially lethal combination, as plants die and decompose, burning up dissolved oxygen in the water and releasing a "sewer gas" smell into the air. "It happens sometimes back in the marshes," said Sam Griffin, who grew up on the lake and guided for decades there. "When it does, the fish go around it to get back in the marshes to spawn."

Dominquez added, "We want to keep the waterways clear and we don't want just one plant (species). We want diversity, not monoculture."

Ideally, she explained, fall water levels will be high enough to allow bass to migrate back into the marsh. From winter into spring, they will recede, with stability during the summer, when fish can move out into the lake for refuge in cooler water if necessary.

Of course, storms and heavy rains in 2016 forced the Corps to intercede more than it does during a typical year. "Without those discharges, the vegetation would have been smothered," the biologist added.

Knowing the importance of Okeechobee's sport fishery and its ecosystem in general, FWC biologists talk weekly with the Corps, providing their opinions on what's best in terms of water levels, Dominguez explained. "We advocate if we see a need."

Nabors added, "FWC doesn’t only manage for fish, but also waterfowl, wading birds, alligators, and other species."

Additionally, FWC has an intra-agency team working on Okeechobee/Everglades issues, as the ecological disasters on both coasts during 2016 forced both federal and state officials to accelerate the search for a solution to the lake's high water. Should flow be restored to the south? Should reservoirs be built north or south of the lake to store excess water?

What can be done to lessen the nutrient load from agriculture and upstream development?

The target phosphorus level for Okeechobee is 105 metric tons annually. In 2015, it was 450. About 37 percent of that came from land that drains into the Kissimmee River, according to the South Florida Water Management District. Sources include citrus groves, dairy farms, and neighborhoods as far north as the Orlando suburbs.

Whatever the solution, FWC intends to make certain that it will not negatively impact the Big O and its world-class bass fishery.

"All of the efforts in Everglades restoration, including reservoirs, water management north of the lake, discharges, and moving more water south, should ultimately allow flexibility and better management of the lake for ecological benefits, including sportfish management," said Nabors. 

(This article appeared originally in Bassmaster Magazine.)

Thursday
Dec152016

California Delta Bass Threatened by Water Infrastructure Bill

The United States Senate recently passed a comprehensive new water infrastructure bill, containing language that will likely be alarming to be many bass anglers — especially those who value the incredible fishery on the California Delta.
 
The Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act (WIIN), which passed the Senate by a vote of 78-21, had already been approved by the U.S. House of Representatives earlier last week and is now awaiting President Barack Obama’s signature.
 
While it contains many positive elements pertaining to water diversion in treasured American waterways like the Florida Everglades, a line buried in the massive document calls for federal and state conservation officials to “remove, reduce or control the effects” of several non-native species in the California Delta. The list of species features 10 fish, including the largemouth bass, smallmouth bass and striped bass.
 
The move could have dire consequences for a bass fishery that is known as one of the nation’s best.
 
“We’re not just talking about eliminating creel and bag limits like they’ve done on the Columbia River (in Oregon),” said Gene Gilliland, B.A.S.S. national conservation director. “They’re talking of going way beyond that now. There’s talk of spraying aquatic vegetation and destroying habitat that’s used not only by bass, but my many other types of wildlife as well.
 
“If they start destroying habitat — congregating fish into one small area — and then start using nets and electrofishing boats to remove fish, it would be an awful scenario.”
 
The California Delta is a vital spawning pathway for multiple species of salmon that are prized by the commercial fishing industry. The salmon — many of which are listed as endangered species — migrate from the ocean up the Sacramento River and its tributaries to spawn. Then the juvenile fish have to make their way back out to the ocean through the river.
 
Many with an interest in the salmon industry have long believed that largemouth, smallmouth and striped bass greatly reduce the salmon population by eating those juvenile fish. But studies have shown that bass prey on a very small percentage of the salmon fingerlings, Gilliland said.
 
The salmon runs have been heavily affected by dams and water diversion for farming purposes.
 
B.A.S.S. and other conservation entities, including the American Sportfishing Association (ASA), have expressed concern in recent days that the language about non-native species was added to an important piece of legislation — a mammoth document — almost as a hidden footnote to appease the pro-salmon crowd.
 
“I think that was put in there to be politically correct,” said Gilliland, who also serves on the Government Affairs Committee of the ASA. “They want to do what they can to protect those salmon runs and bring them back. They have a big economic impact in not just California, but some of those runs provide for commercial fishing all the way up the Pacific coast. There’s obviously a huge value to that.
 
“But there’s also value to the recreational fishing side of it for stripers and bass and catfish and other non-native species. Congress is not valuing that any. To people who care about those other species, they’re basically saying ‘We don’t care about you.’”
 
Gilliland said several alternatives have been recommended that would not require the eradication of non-native predators, but all were dismissed.
 
“A lot can be accomplished on this front with water diversion and timing of the releases out of the dams in regard to where the salmon are in their run,” Gilliland said. “There needs to be some strategy in terms of when they stock salmon versus where the bass are, depending on seasons. That’s also a big thing.”
 
Earlier this year, a petition was filed by the California agricultural industry aimed at removing bag and length limits on black bass in the Delta. That plan was defeated by a coalition comprised of B.A.S.S., the ASA, the California Sportfishing League, Coastal Conservation Association California, Coastside Fishing Club, Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, Fishing League Worldwide, the National Marine Manufacturers Association and Water4Fish.
 
If there’s a silver lining to the new federal legislation, Gilliland said the language added to the bill isn’t as harsh as it could have been.
 
“The original language called for ‘eradication of non-native predators,’” he said. “But the language that made it into the bill says to ‘remove, reduce or control the effects’ of non-native predators.
 
“That leaves some wiggle room. We think there are some other alternatives that are built into this process. We need to make sure the powers-that-be are aware of those and that this thing doesn’t just become a runaway train."

----- B.A.S.S.

Wednesday
Oct192016

Florida Official Wants Sugar Land for Reservoir to Stop Damaging Diversions

As Lake Okeechobee continues to rank as one of  nation's best bass fisheries, discharges of its nutrient-rich waters  to the east and west are feeding toxic algae blooms that devastate ecosystems on both Florida coasts. And the same time, the Everglades to the south slowly is dying of thirst.

With this year arguably the worst ever for algae blooms, many are demanding quick and decisive action. One of those is new Florida state Senate President Joe Negron, who recently promised to push for a solution that is opposed by Gov. Rick Scott and the sugar industry.

Negron wants to buy 60,000 acres used to grow sugar cane to build a $2.4 billion reservoir to hold Okeechobee water that now is discharged via man-made diversions to both coasts. From the reservoir, it would be released into the Everglades, after pollutants settled to the bottom.

"We must buy land south," he said. "That's what I believe is the next step forward."

Before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers led the way in building dikes and replumbing to allow for development and minimize flooding decades ago, that's where water flowed naturally. As the Everglades was replenished, it served as a filter for the water on its way to Florida Bay.

In response to Negron's announcement, the Everglades Foundation said, "This project is vital to re-connecting Lake Okeechobee to the Florida Keys. By storing, cleaning and sending Lake Okeechobee water south, the project significantly reduces the amount of polluted water being dumped east and west."

The environmental organization also called Negron "an Everglades champion."  And it added, "He has placed his political capital on the table in an effort to not only bring relief to his constituency along the east coast, but to begin a project that will provide significant benefits to America's Everglades."

Scott, meanwhile, favors using property the state already owns to finally finish other Everglades restoration reservoirs and water treatment areas.

"We are reviewing his (Negron's) proposal and will continue to review all options that will help with water quality in our state," the governor's office said in a statement released as a response to the new Senate president. "We look forward to working with the legislature as session approaches."

Friday
Sep302016

House Approves Financial Help for Florida's Water Pollution Crisis

Legislation was passed in the U.S. House of Representatives this week that could help alleviate the environmental crisis plaguing Florida's coastal waters, Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades, and, by extension, Florida Bay.

In passing the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), the House by an overwhelming 399-25 vote included $1.9 billion in critical funding for the Central Everglades Planning Project, as well as authorization for waterway access improvements and the use of natural infrastructure wherever possible.

In a nutshell, coastal waters on both sides of the state have been damaged by nutrient-rich waters discharged out of Okeechobee, which feed massive blue-green algal blooms. Before man's interference, high water at the Big O flowed naturally south in the Everglades, where it was filtered, even as it sustained life there. From there, it provided vital fresh water to Florida Bay.

But levees were built to prevent flooding around the lake and allow for development south of it. And that required discharging the water east and west.

“The sportfishing industry recognizes that it is vital for the Florida Everglades to receive funding as soon as possible to expedite the implementation of multi-year projects that will help fix the water quality and water management challenges that plague south Florida,” said American Sportfishing Association Government Affairs Vice President Scott Gudes. “These projects have been through an extensive review process and will provide significant environmental benefits by moving more water south from Lake Okeechobee. We encourage Congress to conference quickly on a final bill so that appropriations and construction can begin as soon as possible.”  Gary Jennings, Keep Florida Fishing manager, added, “These projects will bring much-needed relief to our state’s estuary systems.

"Florida is the Fishing Capital of the World, and we thank lawmakers in the U.S. House and Senate for recognizing the urgent need for measures that will have a major positive impact on fisheries conservation, ecosystem restoration and water quality.”

In a joint statement, Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and ranking member Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) expressed confidence that reconciling the differing versions of WRDA reauthorization in conference will be relatively easy.

"The strong, bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives is a clear sign that we can reconcile the House and Senate bills swiftly and smoothly," they said.

Thursday
Jul212016

Speak Out to Help Stop Destruction of Florida Coastal Fisheries

Florida's coastal fisheries are being destroyed, as the Everglades and Florida Bay are starving for water.

Fed by polluted discharges from Lake Okeechobee, toxic blue-green algae are coating Florida’s east and west coasts, causing fish kills and closing businesses.

This most recent crisis in South Florida reinforces the need to clean and send the water south, as it would naturally flow, to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay that are starving for freshwater.

The State of Florida and the Army Corps of Engineers need to initiate planning this year for water storage, treatment, and flow south of the lake, through the Everglades Agricultural Area.

Edit and send this message to Florida's Governor Scott for a comprehensive evaluation of water storage needs that could benefit the Everglades.

Ten things to know about Florida's harmful algae blooms

 1. What It Is and Where It Came From 

The algae is a cyanobacteria found in Lake Okeechobee, which comes from the runoff containing human waste and fertilizers from nearby farms and ordinary neighborhoods, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Nitrogen and phosphorus, as well as other nutrients in the polluted runoff, can act like fertilizer for the algae, creating large and extensive blooms. 

2. Eager Developers Changed Florida's Waterways

In an attempt to spur the economy years ago, Florida land developers and government officials broke up the natural flow of the state's rivers, Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades to redirect water south from central Florida, according to the Associated Press. The economy did grow as the land was reclaimed from the Everglades for development, but now the unnatural water flow has periodically left rivers and lagoons so toxic with HAB that fish die off, residents become ill and tourists are turned off.

3. The Risks to Humans

If ingested, water contaminated with toxic cyanobacteria can cause nausea, vomiting and, in severe cases, acute liver failure, according to Florida's FWCC. While there have been no documented cases of anyone becoming ill from drinking water containing these toxins, it remains a concern. The Centers for Disease Control says coming in direct contact with the algae can cause a rash and some research indicates a link between long-term inhalation of toxic algae fumes and neurological disorders like Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease.

*   *   *   *

'This is our Deep Water Horizon!' 

"It's time the federal and state government understand how God-awful the problem is here," said Martin County Commissioner Doug Smith, referencing the 2010 oil spill that devastated wildlife along the Gulf of Mexico. 

When the algae blooms die, they release toxins that cause rashes and could endanger wildlife.
The foul-smelling problem - which has closed beaches along the Treasure Coast - stems in part from stopgap measures put in place by the feds.

To preserve the aging earthen dike surrounding Lake Okeechobee, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers routinely releases water to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers.

After floods devastated the area around the lake in the wake of a massive 1928 hurricane that killed 2,500 people, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began regulating lake water levels to minimise the risk of a dike breach.

Now, local officials are citing the lake discharges as the cause of the spreading blooms - although the South Florida Water Management District said that septic tanks and storm water runoff can also play a role

This season's high temperatures and heavy rainfall have only exacerbated the problem.


Florida algae and politics stink like sh . . . ugar

With a state of emergency covering four Florida counties, the stench and slime from toxic blue-green algae blooms in the state are covering the international media. It’s not a sweet sight, but it smells conspicuously like sugar. Big Sugar, to be exact.

Environmental scientists and experts tirelessly point to agricultural pollution and climate change as major contributors to the monster algae epidemic, but, incredulously, Florida’s political leaders just haven’t figured it out.

*    *    *    *

Eight manatee deaths reported in Florida lagoon plagued by algae