Explained: Florida Bay and Everglades Restoration

Anglers are fighting to restore Florida Bay. They won’t quit, no matter how many years it takes.   


May 31, 2023
Redfish from Florida Bay
Redfish are just one of many species that would benefit from a cleaner Florida Bay. Courtesy Columbia Sportswear

Editor’s Note: Check back to this page often to see updates related to anglers fighting for clean, healthy inshore waters in Florida.

Quick Summary: Explaining Florida’s Water Problems

Some call it the birthplace of skinny water sight fishing. Others just know it as Florida Bay. But for those anglers who got to experience the bay during its heyday, there was nothing like it. Even in the early 1990s, fishing was out of this world.

“You could leave Flamingo Marina, turn left, and head straight to Snake or Garfield Bight and start fishing in minutes,” says Florida’s Capt. Chris Wittman. “From Snake Bight to Whipray Basin had some of the cleanest waters, meadows of turtle grass just crowded with snook, redfish, tarpon and bonefish.”

But centuries of draining the Everglades had staggering consequences. The natural flow of water from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades, Everglades National Park and Florida Bay became nothing more than a trickle. Development and agriculture near Lake Okeechobee sucked up the vital water like a shop vac, a practice that continues today. The river of grass is unrecognizable.

Everglades Restoration illustration
In order for Florida Bay to thrive, fresh water must make its way from Lake Okeechobee south through the Everglades to the bay. Courtesy Captains For Clean Water

“Fresh water is absolutely necessary to balance the salinity of Florida Bay,” explains Wittman. “Imagine the basins and shallow waters of Florida Bay as an ice cube tray with high and low spots. Water can’t always leave those low spots with the tide, so water evaporates and leaves those areas hypersaline — three times saltier than the Gulf of Mexico.”

In 2015, another catastrophic die-off of seagrass occurred (yes, there’s been more than one over the years in Florida Bay). Acres of grass shed its blades, leaving the excess nutrients to rot in the water. Algae blooms — a saltwater cyanobacteria — turned the water green. The green water spread to many different areas, blocking out the sun and preventing seagrass growth.

Florida Bay is a shell of what it should be. The bay gets muddy from any wind event. The silt doesn’t settle quickly, something past seagrass beds could clean in a couple tide cycles. Beyond fishing, seagrass is an essential habit for countless species and a food source for manatees. “One acre of seagrass sequesters as much carbon as one acre of rainforest,” points out Wittman. “Losing 50 acres of seagrass is a huge loss because of its value as a carbon sink.”

Capt. Chris Wittman Captains for Clean Water
Capt. Chris Wittman, of Captains for Clean Water, is on a mission to do whatever it takes to help cleanup Florida’s embattled waters. Courtesy Columbia Sportswear

Even with Florida Bay in its current condition, Wittman emphatically points out that answers are available to bring it back to life. Scientists have studied the causes and know the solutions. In 2000, the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) — meant to restore, preserve, and protect the South Florida ecosystem — was signed into law. But either the funds were allocated elsewhere, or some other hurdle stopped the many projects from starting or being completed. Politicians always seemed to have other priorities, driven by different interests.

In 2016, Wittman helped found Captains for Clean Water because he was tired of Florida’s poor water management practices. “Nothing was completed before 2016, but since then, 40 of the 68 CERP Everglades projects have been started or completed,” says Wittman.

First, the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM) had to be updated. LOSOM dictates how Lake Okeechobee’s water is managed. “The Army Corps came up with a new plan — and while it’s not perfect, I consider it shared adversity among the many stakeholders — it’s still better than what it was in 2008,” says Wittman. “The new manual has a 37 percent reduction in discharges of polluted water to the coasts, and three times as much water sent south to Florida Bay.”

tarpon catch boatside
Tarpon are still a reliable catch in Florida Bay and surrounding waters during the summer months. But that has more to do with tarpon and less to do with the habitat. Tarpon have the unique ability to gulp air when the water’s lacking oxygen. Jason Stemple

In 2023, the Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) broke ground on the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Reservoir, ideally located at the south end of the EAA. This cornerstone project reduces harmful Lake Okeechobee discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers by storing and cleaning excess water from the lake before sending it south to the Everglades.

“Lake Okeechobee is polluted with legacy pollutants from agriculture,” explains Wittman. “This 25-foot deep reservoir, along with a Storm Treatment Area that’s almost completed, will act as a man-made wetland. Its footprint is larger than Manhattan. The 16,500 acres will store, filter and clean water headed to Florida Bay.”

The reservoir is not expected to be completed until 2029, so public involvement is vital to Florida Bay and Everglades restoration, says Wittman. “It forces politicians to stay honest and to keep projects moving forward.” That’s why you’ll continue to hear plenty from Captains for Clean Water, and the army of national fishing brands that have joined this fight, to bring world-class sight-fishing back to Florida.

New Eelgrass Plantings in Florida’s St. Lucie River (Updated May 31, 2023)

eel grass planting in Florida
Eelgrass ready to be planted comes in a 4- by 4-inch biodegradable container. Courtesy Sea & Shoreline

A total of 540 biodegradable containers of eelgrass were planted in Southeast Florida’s St. Lucie River as part of continued restoration efforts for the waterway. The area picked was located near Fort Pierce, not far from the Richard E. Becker Preserve.

“For this planting project, we chose areas that were off the main river channel and are much more protected from high flow, including a recently completed oxbow restoration project area called Becker Oxbow,” said Alyssa Jordan, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).

The south fork of the river receives harmful, polluted discharges from Lake Okeechobee whenever water managers need to lower lake levels, leading to toxic, dangerous algae blooms at times. But these eelgrass plantings were placed in the north fork of the river, locations not affected by Lake Okeechobee releases. All of the water runoff in this area is from Ft. Pierce, Port St. Lucie, canals and agriculture.

“The goal of the project is habitat restoration, which has numerous benefits, such as improved water quality,” said Michelle Ashton, director of communications for the nonprofit Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida (FWFF). “It will also provide an eventual food source for manatees and fish habitat, which is why CCA Florida joined in to help. Habitat restoration is something we can all support.”

The main partners who worked with FWFF on the project included Sea & Shoreline aquatic restoration and CCA Florida. FFWF works with public and private partners to raise and donate money for conservation programs.

“For this project, the Fox Rock Foundation donated most of the funding,” said Ashton. “Karen and Rob Hale established the foundation — you might recognize Rob Hale as a co-owner of the Boston Celtics.”

Sea & Shoreline provided the genetically native eelgrass for planting. Many of the volunteers for the plantings came from CCA Florida, but CCA also contributed to funding as well.

“FWC provided the insight into where the eelgrass should be planted, as well as get all the necessary permits,” said Ashton. “Sea & Shoreline harvested the wild eelgrass from Lake Echo, then they broke it down into single plantings. They did all the prep work.”

cages protecting eelgrass
Cages protect newly planted eelgrass from manatees and other herbivores trying to eat them. Courtesy Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida

More than 100 cages were used to protect the eelgrass as it grows, with five plants under each cage.

“We plant these units under 35-pound cages,” said Heather Herold, of Sea & Shoreline. “The cages prevent manatees and other herbivores from eating them. This gives them time to root and grow. After 12 months, we take off the cages.”

In the past, submersed plantings in the north fork of the St. Lucie River have done well until high flow or hurricane events occur. Then, the plantings ultimately failed because of prolonged increased turbidity and extreme velocity. 

“There’s never any guarantee in restoration that it will be a success, but we chose the best areas that we could with the conditions we have,” said Jordan. “We have had success with plantings like this in other high flow and turbid systems, but sometimes they take time and more plantings to get the final success that we want. Ultimately, for there to be submersed plants all throughout the river, and not just in protected areas, there would need to be a reduction of flow from upstream or an increase in floodplain and oxbows to allow water to flow more naturally.”

Fertilizer Ban Limitations (Updated May 8, 2023)

For years, during the rainy months, many Florida counties, cities and municipalities have used local fertilizer bans to prevent nasty runoff into waterways that cause fish kills, algal blooms and red tide. These fertilizers contain nitrogen or phosphorus, which makes your grass as green as nuclear slime, but also causes major destruction to Florida’s estuaries, rivers and lakes. Now, Florida legislators are set to take that power away from localities.

A measure quietly tucked into a budget proposal would prohibit at least 117 local governments from ‘adopting or amending a fertilizer management ordinance’ during the 2023-24 budget year, requiring them to rely on less restrictive regulations developed by the University of Florida, which are supported by the state’s phosphate industry, the producers of fertilizer.”

“If the proposed language becomes law, local governments will no longer be allowed to impose seasonal fertilizer bans or stricter limits and be limited to only the model ordinance.”

“To justify using the budget to pass such a major shift in policy, legislators also included $6.2 million for the IFAS to study the impact of preempting local fertilizer regulations for the next year.” — Tampa Bay Times

“We suspect this study will be used to establish more permanent limitations on local-level fertilizer management, thereby facilitating more prolific use of fertilizer statewide. Good for the fertilizer industry’s bottom dollar, bad for water quality.”

“[A] real threat lies within the long-term problem: the study itself. Why this study is being conducted, the entities behind it, and what will be done with the ‘findings’ are all of concern for the long-term health of our waterways.” — Captains for Clean Water

LOSOM Implementation Delayed (Updated May 5, 2023)

In 2021, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finalized the desperately needed Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM). LOSOM dictates how often lake discharges enter the estuaries on Florida’s east and west coasts, but it’s also the guiding force behind sending three times as much water south to the Everglades. The plan was considered a major win when compared to the old, outdated system called the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule 2008 (LORS08).

The new plan was first set to go into place in late 2022, but that schedule changed. Then, summer 2023 was the new date. Now, December 2023 is the earliest it might happen. That’s because the National Marine Fisheries Service wants to study how discharges affect protected species such as sea turtles and sawfish where the Caloosahatchee River enters the Gulf of Mexico.

“NMFS has ordered a formal biological consultation of the schedule’s impact on the ecosystems in Florida’s west coast estuaries, likely delaying implementation by six months or more.”

“Rep. Brian Mast expressed serious concerns about NMFS’s last minute intrusion into the process, after years of minimal participation in meetings of the Project Delivery Team (PDT) that was responsible for developing LOSOM … Delaying LOSOM through another wet season could spell disaster for the east and west coasts this summer.”U.S. Congressman Brian Mast

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