Fragile Florida Bay

Vital Ecosystem Essential to All Floridian Anglers

Courtesy Eco-Mariner May 22, 2009

Florida Bay is a subtropical marine lagoon that encompasses both Everglades National Park and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Located at the southernmost tip of the Florida peninsula, the crystal-clear flats and world-renowned shallow water game fish of Florida Bay lure an increasing number of anglers every year. Averaging three feet or less in many areas, navigating the skinny water no doubt requires a great deal of knowledge and care. Storms can easily move sand, and new cuts and passes can be opened up, just as old channels and shoals can be covered. Inexperienced and careless boaters can easily damage essential habitat for a diverse collection of marine animals including numerous federally listed threatened and endangered species. As development in South Florida increases, the number of people on the water will continue to grow and without the proper conservation efforts the future of Florida’s most important watershed will be uncertain.

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Photo: John Kipp

It takes time to learn the bay, and it’s something that won’t happen in a weekend. Targeting the shallows requires the proper vessel, too, and flats skiffs that draft 12-inches or less are the preferred craft. Don’t think that just because you’re heading out in a technical poling skiff you’re in the clear. Advances in technology including both shallow drafting skiffs and highly accurate GPS systems may seem like great antidotes to hazards of the past, but the truth is that these tools often give boaters the confidence they need to get into serious trouble.

Advances in technology including both shallow drafting skiffs and highly accurate GPS systems may seem like great antidotes to hazards of the past, but the truth is that these tools often give boaters the confidence they need to get into serious trouble.

Inexperienced or careless boaters can easily damage seagrass beds and mud flats with their propellers; churning up sediment and suffocating plants. Boaters that run aground risk not only damage to their boat but also damage to the bay floor. Prop scars leave lifeless trails that can take a decade or more to recover. Conservationists are well aware of the significance of seagrass and in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary fines for damaging seagrass beds are substantial.

Anglers need to understand that chart plotters are only as effective as the operator and even if you’re equipped with the most technologically advanced shallow water platform, you cannot travel directly to your target destination. With exposed flats, oyster bars and mud banks your route must be well planned and thought out. Anytime you’re navigating an unfamiliar body of water you should go slow and proceed with caution. Give yourself time to learn the bay, and take careful note of your surroundings. A high quality pair of polarized sunglasses will help you distinguish water depth by reducing glare and increasing visibility.

If you see brown water it’s likely that seagrass beds are near the surface. These areas should be avoided to protect damaging your boat and the essential habitat. White colorations indicate sandbars that are most likely shallower than they appear. Green water is generally of safe depth, however, if you’re in an unfamiliar area proceed with caution. Cloudy skies or extreme glare can make it even more challenging to determine the depth so under these conditions your should be extra cautious.

While there are navigational markers in and around main channels, some flats may be marked with only a few PVC stakes, and other more remote flats may not be marked at all. Channels are shallowest at their entrances and exits, so trim your motor accordingly. If there are two stakes, stay between them. If there is only one stake, stay as close as possible to it. Arrows indicate the side of the stake where you should be.

How can you judge if an area is too shallow? Can you come off plane and get back up without blowing a crater in the bottom? In general, even shallow drafting skiffs need at least two to three feet of water to get on plane without stirring up a plume of mud. If you do run aground, don’t try to aggressively motor off the flat. That is the absolute worst remedy, as you will only compound the damage. If your skiff is equipped with a push pole try and push off the flat. If that doesn’t work you may be forced to get out and physically coerce your boat to deeper water. You could wait for the tide to turn but in the remote stretches of Florida Bay tidal movement can be almost non-existent.

Educating boaters on the importance of protecting Florida Bay is critical to ensuring the long-term preservation of the Bay as a boater’s paradise. In South Florida, a movement is currently underway to help boaters and anglers preserve this local treasure. Recently making its online debut, Eco-Mariner (www.eco-mariner.org) is a user-friendly boater education program that helps users navigate Florida Bay without harming underwater resources. Endorsed by several angling, paddling, boating, business, government, and conservation organizations, the online 90-minute course teaches boaters about navigation, habitat concerns, steps that can be taken to avoid damage, and rules and regulations for the bay and its fisheries. Among other things, Eco-Mariner participants will be taught four suggested routes from the Keys to Flamingo, and learn about seagrass damage and its function as a nursery for bay species. Boaters will be encouraged to take precautions that reduce the chance of running aground or scarring the bottom, such as trimming motors, poling over the flats and going quickly from idle speed to on-plane. At the end of the course, participants will take an online test to see if they’ve absorbed the lesson and receive a certificate of completion.

If all parts of Florida Bay and the adjacent marine ecosystems are not healthy and functioning properly, then migratory species will suffer, leading to diminished recreationally and commercially important stocks. The economic effect on these fisheries will be negative, as will the impact on recreational activities that rely on a healthy Florida Bay.

Eco-Mariner’s Six Ways To Protect Florida Bay

  • Know Before You Go: Study your charts and plan ahead for tides, weather, and fuel.
  • Use Your Eyes: Always have polarized sunglasses, which will help to distinguish depth.
  • Slow Down: Idle your boat out to deeper water to get on plane and slow down to avoid hitting marine animals.
  • Take the Long Way Around: Never cut across a flat, instead, use marked channels.
  • Trim You Engine: Know how to trim your engine to reduce your environmental impact.
  • Give Wildlife a Chance: Treat wildlife with respect – don’t leave trash behind and use proper catch and release techniques.

Everglades National Park

Everglades National Park’s 1.5 million acres comprise the largest subtropical wilderness in North America and include much of Florida Bay. Replete with flocks of wading birds as well as alligators and crocodiles – the only place in the world where these two species coexist – Everglades National Park’s varied habitats include labyrinthine mangrove forests, salt-tolerant coastal prairies, freshwater prairies and sloughs, hardwood hammocks, and pinelands. Created to protect the fragile ecosystem, Everglades National Park is home to 36 threatened or protected species including the Florida panther, the American crocodile, and the West Indian manatee. The park contains the largest mangrove ecosystem in the western hemisphere and is also the most significant breeding ground for tropical wading birds in North America. As a result the park has been designated an International Biosphere Reserve, World Heritage Site, and Wetland of International Importance.

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