Florida's Water Crisis Has Sport Fishing on the Brink of Collapse

The following is an excerpt called "Sea Grass ICU" from the article 'Florida's Water Crisis Has Sport Fishing on the Brink of Collapse' covered by Outdoor Life. The article discusses the threat of fecal matter, killer algae, too much water,  and not enough water on Florida's legendary inshore fishing sport and interviews Dr. Zack Jud.  

The full article is available here.


After Mosquito Lagoon and Rotne’s medical nonemergency, my next stop is Stuart, Florida, about 140 miles down the coast. I’ve heard about the work of Zack Jud, director of education at the Florida Oceanographic Institute, and I want his take on the changing ecosystems of Florida’s estuaries.

I find him tending a row of vats with garden hoses threaded through each tub. Inside are flats of juvenile sea grass, tender as bean sprouts as they wave in the weak current, waiting to be planted in the grassless flats of Indian River Lagoon.

Jud acknowledges that sea-grass restoration is a small-scale Band-Aid, but the native vegetation is such a foundational part of the ecosystem that any bit helps, he says, even if it’s propagated in his makeshift nursery.

“Estuaries are resilient,” he says. “If we had six months without freshwater discharges or hurricanes, you’d see functional habitats start to heal themselves. The problem is we haven’t given them any time to reset.”

The solution to southern Florida’s water crisis, Jud says, is allowing Lake O’s water to reach the Everglades and Florida Bay. But, he says, it can’t be the hyper-rich water that’s currently being sluiced down the St. Lucie. One potential solution is a series of storage impoundments south of Okeechobee that would filter water, then release it through the Everglades.

That plan is officially called the Everglades Agricultural Area Storage Reservoir Project, and it would hold and treat 240,000 acre-feet of water. The estimated cost is $1.3 billion—a hefty sum that will be split by the state and federal governments, at least in theory. President Trump toured the Big O in March, just after I had visited, and said he was committed to supporting the project. Florida legislators are asking the President for $200 million a year to fund Everglades projects, but Trump’s initial budget included only $63 million.

“What’s at stake? Right here where we’re standing, a world-class fishery is at stake,” Jud says. “The world-record seatrout was caught 20 miles from here. But big picture, it’s the economy of clean water that drives Florida that’s at stake.”

Sportfishing drives an $8 billion economy in the state that depends on clean water, but the plan is opposed by sugar producers, who might lose land to the project and who are the primary beneficiaries of the discharge system that’s in place now. The current water regime has created near-perfect sugarcane growing conditions in what was formerly swampland. Between 1994 and 2016, the sugar industry poured $57.8 million into state and local political campaigns, according to a review of election records by the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times.

But even those within the sportfishing community have different opinions about how to fix the problem. Scott Martin—whose father, the legendary bass angler Roland Martin, founded the biggest fishing resort on Lake O—worries that another reservoir will simply fill up and overflow. He’d rather see the impoundment funds used to restore Lake O’s shoreline marshes to filter water that would then be discharged to the coasts.

“People talk about turning the Everglades into the way they were 80 years ago,” says Martin, who manages the resort. “It’s just not gonna happen. So, let’s fix what we can.”