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Ocean Currents

Florida’s Water Quality Crisis

To fix fish kills and water quality issues in Biscayne Bay and avoid a similar fate across the state, Florida leadership needs to step up

Elizabeth García - Baywood Park (1)
Evidence of the major fish kill event in Biscayne Bay during August 2020. © Elizabeth García/Miami Waterkeeper

This blog was written by Dave Doebler, the co-founder, along with his partner Dara Schoenwald, of VolunteerCleanup.org, a citizen-led environmental action group that has removed tons of marine debris from South Florida waterways and beaches, and a critically important partner of Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup.

When people started texting me pictures of the Biscayne Bay fish kill happening right in Miami’s backyard, I was horrified—but not surprised. For years, we’ve been pulling tons of plastic trash (125 tons to be more precise) from Biscayne Bay and educating people about marine debris sources and solutions. Everyone is rightfully horrified when they join us on a cleanup and fill a couple of bags because the problem is obvious and so easily seen. And it’s no secret how most of it gets into the Bay, street-level storm drains across the city lead to canals that lead directly to the bay.

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“This fish kill event illustrated that Biscayne Bay is precariously hovering around a tipping point. Without concrete action to curb nutrient pollution from septic system failure, dirty stormwater, sewage leaks and fertilizers, more fish kills may be in store. This is not the future we want for Biscayne Bay—an ecologic jewel and economic hub for our region—and, with the proper sweeping changes we can still chart a different course.”

Rachel Silverstein
Miami Waterkeeper

But unlike marine debris, you can’t see the fertilizers, nutrients and septic runoff damaging our bay with your own eyes. At least not until the fish kills and algae come. As much as plastic is destroying our ocean, it is these pollutants (because they are not being properly monitored and managed) which directly led to the fish kill and algae bloom events. And here we are. This is not a surprise to those of us who spend our time on the bay, and it shouldn’t be a surprise to our local or state government either. We’ve been yelling for years. But they couldn’t see it, so they ignored it.

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“Biscayne Bay provides students in Miami-Dade County a special opportunity to see and learn firsthand about its unique ecosystems and how they relate to humans and our impacts. The threatened health and safety of Biscayne Bay robs our students of this living treasure in their own backyard.”

Barbara Martinez-Guerrero
Dream in Green

Our lack of a dedicated point person who can define goals and strategies, lack of coordinated policy across the 32 entities which operate alongside Miami-Dade County on the MS4 Stormwater Discharge Permit and lack of oversight on infrastructure design and maintenance have forced everyone to figure it out on their own. Our local and state government—both elected and staff—have failed to protect Biscayne Bay from being turned into one giant septic tank. Someone needs to finally lead.

The time has come to implement the recommendations from the Biscayne Bay Task Force. These well-organized recommendations were made in an open and transparent forum, written by the best talent in South Florida with decades of experience researching Biscayne Bay and developing solutions to what ails it.

September is International Coastal Cleanup Month, and picking up marine debris is so critically important in Biscayne Bay and in South Florida. But it is also critically important that we work on implementing policy solutions that will fix our water quality situation in the bay, and all of Florida, so that not only can we have waters that are free of plastic, but that are healthy and robust for fish and other wildlife. That’s the Biscayne Bay I want.

Florida is fortunate to have incredible coastal ecosystems and marine wildlife—an iconic, natural environment surrounded by and dependent upon clean water. Speak up for Florida and tell your legislators you support improving Florida’s water quality. Unless we push decision-makers to ensure meaningful laws are put in place to protect our natural resources, Florida’s beloved coasts are at risk.

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