I was invited to go out on Florida Bay in early December 2017. I was pumped and felt like I hit the jackpot. I was just asked to go on a boat for work for the first time in my life.
And Florida Bay did not disappoint. The water was so clear, calm, and blue that you couldn’t tell the difference between the water and the cloudless sky.
I saw dolphins and manatees. I had my first glimpse of the seagrasses I had been reading and hearing about so much. There was hardly any wind so I could easily hear wading birds talking to one another in their high pitched voices.
We were out there because Hurricane Irma had passed through just a few months prior, and I was helping inventory damaged channel markers. This was a park priority because these channel markers help to protect seagrass beds.
Florida Bay is not easy to navigate, even for experienced boaters. The bay is made of shallow basins separated by even shallower banks of mud and seagrass.
Seagrass beds are easily damaged if boat propellers contact the bottom. Channel markers help prevent that from happening by defining a trail network through the bay.
Seagrass needs protection because all life in Florida Bay depends on it. These flowering plants are food for animals ranging from manatees to sportfish such as tarpon. Different seagrass species protect the babies of some fish species by allowing them to hide from predators.
Seagrass even improves water quality by taking up nutrients from the water, prevents coastal erosion, and keeps the water clear by stabilizing sediments.
When seagrass isn’t doing well, the health of the entire bay suffers. So when planning how to manage Florida Bay, the park makes decisions that minimize damage to resources such as seagrass, while ensuring public access so all can enjoy these public lands and waters.
“When we first started to map out Florida Bay and identify management options, we set out to find ways to enhance both visitor use and seagrass protection,” said Fred Herling, supervisory park planner for Everglades and Dry Tortugas National Parks. “We used several years of aerial photo imagery to look for prop scar damage to seagrasses and evaluated that data along with other variables, like water depth and high boat use areas. We found that areas with water depths lesss than two feet accounted for more than 90% of prop scar damage.”
With that finding in mind, a team, including just about every division in the park, worked closely with the public to put together a preliminary plan for the bay. After over 100 public meetings and several rounds of formal public comment periods, a revised plan was finalized in 2015.
The final decisions all became part of the park’s General Management Plan, an effort that includes ensuring channel markers are in place, setting up strategic
zoning, and creating educational opportunities for boaters.
A lot of progress has been made. A little over half of the channel markers I was helping to inventory two years ago have already been replaced.
Boaters can now use them to avoid boating in shallow waters. The work will be completed later this year.
Zones have also been designed based on water depth. For example, pole and troll zones are located in the most shallow areas where seagrass is most at risk for damage from boating. You can only use push poles, paddles, or electric trolling motors to move.
“The park has set up 103,000 acres of pole and troll zones, which represents about 25% of Florida Bay,” Herling said. “The key driver for the pole and troll zones is to protect the seagrass beds.”
But do the pole and troll zones work to protect the seagrasses? So far, it seems like they do.
In January 2011, a popular 9,000-acre area east of Flamingo called Snake Bight was designated as the first pole and troll zone in Florida Bay. Since that decision was made, park and partner agencies and university scientists have been monitoring the area with images captured with aerial photography.
“Results are still preliminary, but seagrasses do seem to be recovering nicely and boat operator behavior has changed.” said Matt Patterson, marine ecologist for Everglades and Dry Tortugas National Parks.
“If we can educate the boating public about the pole and troll zone locations, in conjunction with the Boater Education course, we should see a reduction in seagrass scarring.” Patterson said.
The public is a major reason the park now has a Boater Education course that introduces boaters to the unique Florida Bay ecosystem. During public meetings, it was one of the most highly supported plans to protect Florida Bay.
The course has been available since last year, and there have been over 3,000 people who have completed it and received their permit. On August 1, it becomes mandatory for all boaters in the park’s marine waters.
I didn’t know about all of these plans when I took my first trip out to Florida Bay in 2017. But I did notice that day that the bay was a special place. And I think a part of me unconsciously decided to become a champion for Florida Bay.
In doing so, I joined many others who are also making decisions to keep the bay healthy. You don’t need to be a park manager to make decisions that put Florida Bay first. We all can do that.
What decisions can you make to help Florida Bay?
⦁ Visit the park’s boating page to find more information and take the online Everglades National Park Boater Education Course: http://go.nps.gov/evergladesboating
This new course will be mandatory for boat operators starting Aug. 1, 2019.
⦁ Report any damaged and missing channel markers here:
⦁ Take a friend out fishing, birding, or even crocodile-watching on Florida Bay.
We hope you will help share this special place with those who will appreciate it.