Bay watch

When inspecting the ocean around Miami with a drone, issues come to light. But so does hope.

Words and photographs by Francesca Larrain & Bryce Raley

It is 5:30 AM. Jose sets his morning in motion with a cafe con leche amidst the chirping birds signalling the arrival of dawn. He starts his pickup truck, gripping the leather steering wheel that has lost its shine from decades of use. With a few casting nets and a faithful heart, he looks up at the cross hanging over his rearview mirror, his daily ritual before venturing out. The streetlights begin to dim with the arrival of first light and looming skyscrapers topped with massive cranes glare at him as he ventures towards Biscayne Bay. As a small business owner, Jose keeps his livelihood afloat through catching baitfish such as mullet and pilchards.

The concrete jungle continues to grow larger. Train horns blare, Uber drivers honk, and fuel burning engines echo through the city streets. Real-estate and tourism continue to boom as herds of financial advisors, real-estate agents, and remote workers make their way to the sunshine state. Inflation continues to rise and Jose knows he needs to catch some bait. He parks his car off of Rickenbacker Causeway and wades through the shallow waters of the Bay.

As he walks through the shallow seagrass beds, he takes an empty garbage bag out of his pocket and begins picking up debris. From rubber sandals to fishing lines, he fills his ten-gallon garbage bag to the brim and throws it in the trashcan along the shore. He casts his net into the water, over and over. Rather than hop on a commercial fishing boat and draw out stadium-sized nets, he chooses to fish in a way that is sustainable. Jose is setting an example not only for the other fisherman, but for everyone. Having done the same thing in communist Cuba, he is grateful for the chance to grow his business in the free enterprise system that is the United States. Jose is one of many Cubans who immigrated to Miami. Whether by boat or plane, these immigrants are grateful and faithful. Like Jose, it is our duty to take care of the ocean, so it may take care of us.

When we think about ocean conservation, we must remember the hardworking people like Jose who earn a living from the sustenance that the ocean provides. May they not become overshadowed by the overwhelming footprint of commercial fisheries. Human advocacy works in conjunction with environmental advocacy. Compassion over shame. Education over blame. When the world only focuses on environmental issues without having compassion and connection to human rights and advocacy, it creates an unbalanced atmosphere that does not breed positive change. We must take action to create a better system in which we all benefit from including both humans and the environment.

Access to a clean, safe beaches is a luxury nowadays. When we walk our beaches, micro plastics line the shores and fishing lines tangle along the rocks and seagrass beds. If we create better education systems and opportunities for individuals to learn about the effects and impacts of every action, our beaches would look very different. Simply writing rules and codes is not the solution. We should work together to raise awareness and help humans understand the why of every action and compromise.

The threat of fishing is often overshadowed by the impact that large scale coastal development and agricultural practices are having on the marine environment. The majority of the ocean’s biodiversity exists near the coastline while some of the most bustling cities, farms, power plants, and factories in the world exist along the coast. As we continue to expand our development footprint, pollution and runoff into the ocean seems inevitable. The results of pollution and runoff is eutrophication: excess amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus in the water column due to fertilizers. 

Eutrophication, coupled with rising sea temperatures, has led to outflows and growths of sargassum of threatening proportions. When there is a long pattern of prevailing onshore wind, the sargassum floats from the Gulf Stream into the coastline piling up on our beaches. There is no sure-fire solution to solve this problem so we must be conscious of it and alert global agricultural companies to change their methods. In balanced numbers, Sargassum creates a thriving ecosystem for many small marine organisms from baby sea turtles to micro plankton. However, when patches the size of U.S. states begin to pileup along the coastline, sunlight cannot enter the water column and the flow of oxygen and nutrients is halted. This transforms thriving coastal marine ecosystems into dead zones.

 Sargassum overgrowth is an issue for both the environments and the economies of South Florida and the Caribbean. Tourism is halted and beachgoers would rather stay home to avoid the sulfur laden air and poor-quality ocean water. As the problem gets worse, it will bring loads of dead microorganisms, fish, and other marine life onto the beach. As these organisms, along with the Sargassum itself, decompose on the sand, the toxic hydrogen sulfide gas released can cause respiratory issues for anyone who is nearby.

Eutrophication has led to more issues than just Sargassum. Another problem is algal overgrowths and the loss of seagrass beds. Seagrass beds host a thriving marine ecosystem. As the sunlight reflects along the shallow waters, the algae covered seagrass in Biscayne Bay becomes fluorescent, almost radioactive looking from aerial images. The natural colour of seagrass blades is concealed by the neon green color of algal overgrowths. As the algae engulfs the seagrass beds, all that is left is a bed of algae. Seagrass is the main food source for manatees, and seagrass beds are an ecosystem for entire food webs.

When people think of Miami, they often envision a sovereign country in its own right, with a predominately Spanish speaking population and economy. What is often overlooked is the beautiful abundance of tropical marine ecosystems, in which the economy of Miami is built upon. Miami is a blue carbon city, attracting conservationists and project leaders alike. There is so much to accomplish. We have unlimited resources and brain power to reverse the impacts we have had on the beautiful ecosystems that we base our livelihood on. If everyone takes action together, we can all live a sustainable life- one based on synergy and coexistence.

There is a silver-lining in all of this, and during quarantine we saw this silver lining. While society was in standstill, the temporarily untouched waters of Biscayne Bay began to teem with sea life. Seagrass began to grow, manatees began to congregate, and dolphins leaped from the waters in unison.

What was once a polluted bay became a place of wonder and a utopia for wildlife. We can use our environment’s resources, enjoy the outdoors, and be conscious of our impacts and footprints in order to live a sustainable lifestyle. This is the world that we all love. Lets do our part every day. May we be advocates for the environment and humanity.

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