Green Tide

Mysterious matter threatens one of the world's most important ecosystems

Despite relatively strict environmental laws, awareness doesn't appear widespread. "I guess there are supposedly some laws saying no net loss," the marine biologist, Lapointe, said of the Keys' mangrove ecosystem. "But it's clear they're still cutting mangroves right and left." Even the city of Key West found itself cited for improperly cutting mangroves in front of the police department not too long ago, Lapointe said.

Efforts to launch a $16 billion Everglades restoration project are largely stalled, and the return of a clean freshwater flow to Florida Bay remains a dream. For now, the largest wetland ecosystem in the world remains straitjacketed by concrete-lined canals and levees. It is a wilderness neutered in the name of progress and poisoned by the runoff of industry and agriculture, especially that of pesticide-heavy sugar cane fields. What once was an 11 million-acre "river of grass" has been drained to a fraction of its size, leaving thousands of years' worth of nutrients exposed and decomposing in a toxic stew.

For Lain Goodwin, another Key Largo fishing guide, the algae bloom is an issue that goes way beyond tourism or fishing. For years, Goodwin has launched into Blackwater Sound, a body of water named for the thick carpet of sea grass that made the clear water appear dark from above. Sure, with the bloom, he has to go ten or fifteen miles out now, instead of five, to find tarpon, redfish, snapper, and grouper. But a few extra gallons of gas in the 200-horsepower outboard isn't the point, Goodwin said. "We've kind of lost the aesthetic of the Keys."

Lou Greenwell
Rob Jordan
Lou Greenwell
East Florida Bay, where the unprecedented "algae bloom" began
East Florida Bay, where the unprecedented "algae bloom" began

Greenwell has read about the highway project, and he's heard all the other theories behind the algae bloom. He doesn't pretend to know the answers, but he knows the place he comes for sanctuary is changing fast.

Late last year, just before construction closed the boat ramp at Mile Marker 113, Greenwell launched what he assumed would be his last group trip through the area. In an e-mail message with the subject line, "Goodbye to a signature trip," he told Paradise Paddlers club members that soon the ramp at Mile Marker 111 would be closed, too.

That day, the 22 kayakers who joined Greenwell paddled a 13-mile loop from Little Blackwater Sound out to Florida Bay, through the Bogies, across Blackwater Sound, and back to the launch point. Away from the bloom, they saw leopard rays with snow-white bellies and three-foot wingspans. An eight-foot shark bumped into one boat, and frigate birds, their long tails like black streamers, hovered overhead.

Afterward, the group drank beer and reminisced at Gilbert's Tiki Bar in Key Largo. "We talked about how this is going to be a part of history now," Greenwell said. "We'll never be able to do these trips again."

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