Preserving Paradise: Florida's Fragile Fisheries are Showing Clear Signs of an Elevated Cocktail Menu of Pollutants.

Kathy LaFollett
In 2012 I landed a tailing redfish in Fort DeSoto waters. Redfish weren't full of pharmaceuticals then.Photo byKathy LaFollett

Florida’s coastline runs from the Gulf of Mexico through the Florida Straits and out into the Atlantic. The Keys off the southern tip offer ancient limestone steps into a treasure trove of marine life and vacation magic. Our coastlines, and all the waterways feeding the interior, our freshwater lakes, estuaries, everglades, and hidden fisheries are a vital component of Florida’s lifestyle economy. And they are suffering under the weights of overdevelopment, population density, poor choices, and concrete. The Gulf of Mexico is mixing an array of impacts endangering the entire Third Coast showcasing results in the wildlife that swim and hunt in its waters.

We’ve normalized mercury, PAHs (Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a class of chemicals that occur naturally in coal, crude oil, and gasoline.), pesticides, pharmaceuticals, fertilizers, plastics, and chemical dispersants. Florida’s decades of aggressive overdevelopment, poor water management, and political preferences for profits have brought us to a perfect storm. So normalized is the state of compromised are the fisheries, the State issues a guide to eating fish caught in Florida. Eating Guidelines for Fresh Water, Marine and Estuarine Fish from Florida Waters There are safe levels of mercury now. Who knew?

Ten grouper species were collected from seven regions of the Gulf of Mexico between 2011 and 2017, to sample and assess short-term (biliary) acute and long-term (hepatic) chronic exposures to PAHs. All collected fish presented detectable levels of PAHs. Showing a ubiquitous contamination of PAHs throughout the Gulf of Mexico. The study results showed that in three years fish health metrics declined up to 65% after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The study also suggests current increasing exposures and concentrations in the Gulf of Mexico mean grouper are chronically exposed. Yellowedge Grouper liver concentrations of PAHs had increased over 800%.

And yet, we’ve normalized oil spills and leaks to where The Taylor Leak, the longest ongoing oil platform leak in the history of America spanning three presidents (and stil going), is a blip on our radar. Business as usual. For humans.

Florida’s gulf coast has become a headliner for environmental issues, with red tides, fish kills, redfish full of pharmaceutical grade drugs, and reports of contaminated seafood becoming common. Wastewater discharge, nutrient pollution, and land-based pollution from pesticides and fertilizers are a background discussion during headline bursts. Overdevelopment has further compounded problems, with the destruction of essential habitats like mangroves, seagrasses, and coral reefs. Florida’s original natural Everglade, a river of grass, was the only one of its kind in the world. We’ve engineered it into a caricature of itself.
Coastal overdevelopment requires terraforming to create unnatural waterfronts.Photo byAdobe Express Pro

Biscayne Bay, an exemplary spot proving Florida’s natural resource of wildlife and beauty, sent out a stress signal in 2020. FIU’s Institute of Environment set out near Julia Tuttle causeway to witness first hand an enormous fish kill. “It is an emergency. The bay is not in a good place right now,” said Piero Gardinali, a chemistry professor who is director of the institute’s Freshwater Resources Division. “It’s a warning sign more than anything else. People have been predicting that things like this could happen. I think it’s time for us to sit at the table and say ‘OK, let’s do something about it.’”

Pharmaceuticals, viruses, and pathogens from wastewater discharge from residential, commercial, and industrial sources has led to a cocktail of contaminants in coastal waters, creating complex negative impacts on fish, their growth, behavior, and survival. Fish have even shown signs of drug addiction and associated behavior changes because of exposure to pharmaceutical drugs entering waterways through wastewater.

Pesticides, fertilizers, and Red Tide are testamony to Florida’s agriculture, golf industry, and residential influence on nutrient pollution in coastal waters. We’re working hard to grow things nature did not intend to grow in our state. Geologically, Florida is natural water filter made of a river of grass, limestone, and sand between a gulf, a straight, and an ocean. Lawns were an idea by a real estate developer to mimic a small prairie of land to a buyer. A real estate sales pitch in the 1940s. Golf, or gouff, as pronounced by the Scottish at the first round, started on the eastern coast of Scotland. Players hit a pebble over sand dunes, then around tracks using a bent stick. It was banned in 1457 by King James II. The nation’s obsessive pursuit of gouff caused soldiers to neglect their military training preparing for a growing war. Big Sugar with its non-native plant is an aggressive industry gobbling and terraforming for profits both politically and environmentally.
Big Sugar and its big impacts add up.Photo byAdobe Express Pro

There’s a story behind every reason someone profits from our local natural resources. Global history and the history of Florida celebrate initiative, growth, stature, power, titles, money, location, and ownership. We stand on the bones and gristle of the beings and land that died for those stories, not acknowledging we are standing on our own necks. From Flagler’s folly toward the Keys, to Disney buying the headwaters of the Everglades, Orlando. It was swamp. Florida was 3/4 water, and a delicate ecosystem. Walt drained that ecosystem. Then the birth of hundreds of thousands of boxes we call waterfront condos, resorts, and hotels. We glory at the achievement of terraforming incomes through each square foot taken.
A natural occurring waterway in the Everglades.Photo byAdobe Express Pro
Man's idea of a waterway in the everglades.Photo byAdobe Express Pro

Our headlines whisper truths we dare not read out loud. Nature is beginning to tax us for all this human initiative, growth, stature, power, titles, money, location, and ownership. And if our human nature stays true, we’ll wait for someone to capitalize on temporarily fixing just enough to normalize it for just a little longer. A Florida conservationist is a person who bought a waterfront condo yesterday and wants to shut the door forever. After his three friends close on their properties.
Waterfront in its many permutations.Photo byAdobe Express Pro

We can get involved by changing our personal habits, understanding, and views with time, money, or sharing facts through several conservation organizations. We will create change through normalizing the truth that humans are but one part of this planet’s lifecycles. And we are the only part that harms ourselves and our world for money.

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Florida author, speaker, and wildlife/companion animal advocate writing about life in the Sunshine State from my cityscape, St. Petersburg.

St. Petersburg, FL

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