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DeSantis Promised $10 Million For Biscayne Bay In December. Meanwhile, $10 Million For Coral Reefs Dried Up

Swimmer Kathryn Mikesell encountered mats of floating dead fish during her morning swim Monday in northern Biscayne Bay.
Kathryn Mikesell
Swimmer Kathryn Mikesell encountered mats of floating dead fish during her morning swim in August in northern Biscayne Bay.

Last month, reef organizations were told the $10 million was no longer available. But within weeks of WLRN inquiring, the grant money was reinstated.

Just before South Florida hosted the Super Bowl in 2020, Gov. Ron DeSantis held a press conference at the Frost Museum of Science to announce a new initiative to help protect Florida’s increasingly ailing coral reef.

“Many of you know there have been a lot of different challenges to the health of the reef,” DeSantis said of the only inshore reef bounding continental shores, now battling a lethal disease outbreak.

Last year, he said the state had spent $9 million, the most ever. “And this year, we’re asking for even more money,” he said.

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A number of organizations involved in saving reefs from stony coral disease, which traveled down the tract and into the Caribbean, attended the press conference: Force Blue, the group that connected military combat divers struggling with PTSD with reef researchers; the Nature Conservancy; the University of Miami and others.

Ultimately, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection would make $10 million in grants available.

Then, nearly a year later and just weeks before another Super Bowl, DeSantis held another press conference in Miami, near the Cape Florida lighthouse overlooking Biscayne Bay.

“Protecting Biscayne Bay has to be a top priority,” he said as he announced plans to jump on another environmental issue: pollution in Biscayne Bay.

The bay has been steadily declining, with more than 20 square miles of seagrass dying since 2005. Over the summer, low-oxygen in the barren north end left the shores littered with mats of floating dead fish.

“Ten million dollars will come from the state and $10 million will come from Miami-Dade County,” he said.

What DeSantis didn’t say was that while the state was sending $10 million to the bay, the $10 million in FDEP grants for coral work had suddenly dried up.

'It's Like Getting Asked To The Dance Twice'

Universities, nonprofits and local governments — 22 in all — had applied for that money. Now, teams were being told it was no longer available. The applications had been due back in August and some applicants were in the final stages of processing the grants.

“I left for my Christmas holiday with my proposal turned in going, 'Yes! This is going to be a great way to start the year,’" said Beth Firchau, the project coordinator for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ reef rescue project. “And the first week in January, I was told that the money had been redirected.”

The nonprofit foundation for the state's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission had enlisted the zoo association in rescue efforts after scientists took the unprecedented step of removing healthy coral from the reef to build a Noah’s ark in case they were unable to control the disease. At the zoos, skilled staff could tend to the coral. The attractions also provided a place to alert the public to the growing problem.

Firchau estimates the zoos and aquariums have spent about $9 million so far. But the pandemic has dropped attendance — and revenues — for many.

“It is the governor's prerogative. It is a worthwhile redirection,” Firchau said when asked about the decision. “You know, you can't armchair quarterback.”

But last week — nearly a month after WLRN started asking questions about the money — funding for reefs was reinstated.

“It’s like getting asked to the dance twice,” said Bob Johnson, general manager of Florida Sea Base, a Boy Scout program that had applied for $250,000 to expand its coral nursery and STEM program. The base serves more than 15,000 boys and girls annually.

“We were happy to have been selected. And we're happy that, after we learned that funding had been cut, that we got reselected,” he said.

The sea base, the zoo association, Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, the University of Miami and the Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida were among those now approved to get grant money.

In a Jan. 13 email, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection said none of the proposals from the 22 organizations were getting money. She also said money for coral is available from a variety of state sources and that work on Biscayne Bay would ultimately be good for coral too — although most of the projects are based miles away in the Keys.

Then on Feb. 8, she said seven of the original applicants would get money after all. She would not say where the money was coming from, or how much the groups would now receive.

“To be clear, there are a suite of coral restoration projects that are multi-faceted and symbiotic in nature,” she said, using the term scientists use to describe the mutually beneficial relationship between coral and the algae that live inside them.

'Which Of Your Children Do You Want To Give Up?'

The sleight of hand with the money left longtime bay activist Capt. Dan Kipnis fuming.

“You didn't add another $10 million. You just took it away from the reef that you had committed to in a big hullabaloo, a press conference and all that,” Kipnis said.

Given the urgency of problems in both Biscayne Bay and the reef, Kipnis said the state should be able to find money in a $9.2 billion budget to do both.

“We don't have money to protect our coral reefs and Biscayne Bay? Biscayne Bay is right in the middle of Miami-Dade County. It used to be the jewel of Miami-Dade County. There is no money?” he asked. “You take grants away from one person to give it to another?”

None of the applicants WLRN interviewed criticized DeSantis’ move. In fact, they say his attention to environmental problems is a welcome change from the state’s last Republican governor, Rick Scott.

“In comparison to the last governor, [DeSantis] is actually paying a lot of attention to coastal water quality issues. And we all welcome that,” said Florida International University marine biologist Jim Fourqurean.

But having to choose between a healthy reef and clean water should also not be an option, he said.

“'Which of your children do you want to give up?' and the answer is going to be neither,” he said. “It's a false choice to have to decide which is more important.”

You can read more stories like this one by signing up for our environment text letter. Just text “enviro news” to 786-677-0767 and we’ll send you a roundup of stories like this — and more — every Wednesday.

Jenny Staletovich is WLRN's Environment Editor. She has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years. Contact Jenny at jstaletovich@wlrnnews.org
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