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A Florida journalist reflects on his reporting of seagrass losses in estuaries across the state

Seagrass flats in a bay.
Costa Sunglasses
Capt. Benny Blanco guides fishing clients in the Florida Bay in 2022. Some seagrass flats in the bay suffered severe die-offs in 2015, triggered by high salinity relating to a lack of freshwater in the Everglades.

Seagrasses are currently dying off across Florida. The die-offs began in all five of Florida’s major estuaries between 2011 and 2016 — that includes Tampa Bay, Charlotte Harbor, Florida Bay, Biscayne Bay, and the Indian River Lagoon.

In a two-part series, South Florida Sun Sentinel newspaper senior editor and reporter Bill Kearney explained this is happening because of rising temperatures and population growth.

Heat stresses the seagrasses. And with Florida being the fastest growing state in the country, more people means more pollutants and nutrients entering our waters, especially through increased stormwater runoff and leaky septic tanks.

Seagrasses are important for biodiversity, as well as tourism and the economy.

WUSF's Jessica Meszaros spoke to Kearney about his reporting, which is linked below:

Special report: Where has Florida’s seagrass gone, and can we bring it back?

Save it or lose it: As seagrass vanishes, a mass death of marine life and a brown-water future

You brought us this two-part series on seagrasses… It gives us a history. It lets us know what's going on now. It looks into the future. Why did you want to tell this story?

Bill Kearney is a reporter, covering the environment, and senior editor for the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
Bill Kearney
Bill Kearney is a reporter, covering the environment, and senior editor for the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

Selfishly, I live very close to Biscayne Bay, and I fish love to fish. And I witnessed over the past 10 years the seagrass in northern Biscayne Bay vanish, essentially, and go from a kind of lush turtle grass, clean water estuary to an algae-based muddy, kind of brown… pea soup green. And that's been very upsetting.

So sea grasses are dying across Florida, right? We've heard the story before maybe in different parts of the state... it's been told kind of separately, but your story is all encompassing. Can you describe why this die-off recently is more significant?

Seagrass die-off has happened before in Florida in various estuaries at various times. Seagrass recovers. But this is the first time it's really been simultaneous in all five major estuaries in Florida… So that really made me curious about what is happening in this state.

Do we know where the worst die-offs are happening in the state right now?

Probably in northern Biscayne Bay… That section of the bay does not flush very well. It gets a lot of septic runoff. It gets phosphorus from agriculture. A really vast area of that bay off of I-195, it's just gone, 90% of the grass is gone. Indian River Lagoon has had similar sections die off at an 80% rate. I would say those two estuaries are the worst at the moment.

And you noted… about Tampa Bay that we had a success story from 1988 onward. We had seagrasses bounce back, but then a collapse began again in 2016. What can we learn from that?

It's interesting. Frank Catino, who is a fishing guide that I interviewed for the story in the Indian River Lagoon, he looked at Tampa as an example of "all is not lost," like this can work because Tampa Bay lost 90% of its seagrass from like 1948 to around 1980… it was just gone.

The region and the city devoted themselves to cleaner water, specifically nutrient issues, phosphorus and nitrogen are the culprits. And they really made a difference and Tampa Bay in particular had a really significant comeback to the point where every year was improving up until 2016.

 South Florida Sun Sentinel
South Florida Sun Sentinel

They lost, since 2016, 30% of their seagrass coverage in Tampa Bay, mostly in the north, like upper bay that's like closer to creeks and just gets less tidal flush. So, that 30% loss has brought them back all the way to 1988 levels, which is upsetting to a lot of people.

It's perplexing to the scientists who are addressing the issue. I think a lot of them feel that we need to reassess how we test water quality... They'll admit that they don't really know exactly why this is happening. They're meeting their water quality standards, but the seagrass is still dying off.

Your series poses a question: does the Florida we're constructing in the 21st century mean the end of the state's seagrass and the life that comes with it? Did you ever find an answer to that question?

This is not a scientific opinion. It's my opinion, as someone who's reported on this is: if we don't improve our infrastructure to accommodate the humanity that is now here, we will continue to see these die-offs... probably at a more rapid rate.

Copyright 2023 WUSF 89.7. To see more, visit WUSF 89.7.

Jessica Meszaros is a reporter and host of All Things Consideredfor WGCU News.
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