Saving Biscayne Bay: Researchers worry about risk of another fish kill this summer

MIAMI – On a cool March morning, a research team from Florida International University’s Institute of Environment returned to the waters of Biscayne Bay. The data that was coming from one of the research buoys was alarming.

Todd Crowl, the director of the FIU Institute of Environment, said that for the fourth straight day the oxygen levels that were coming from the mouth of the Biscayne canal into the bay were dangerously low. That was one of the factors of the latest devastating fish kill in the north bay last summer.

“We should not see oxygen get below 5, 6,” Crowl said.

The research team is on an urgent mission to find the source of the problem. The only conclusion is that it is chemical — an overload of dangerous nutrients from land-based pollution.

“We really need to figure out where this is coming from and come up with a fix,” Crowl said.

Crowl said the research team is “contact tracing” the chemical inputs that are constantly causing the dissolved oxygen sags.

“This time we will be proactive and say the oxygen is dropping,” Crowl said. “We are going to have fish dying if we don’t get out there and figure out how to oxygenate the bay.”

So far, it hasn’t come to that. The bay has been stable these past seven months with no major events like the fish kill or algae bloom we experienced last summer, but June is almost here. Our temperatures are getting warmer, and so is our water.

The looming threat of another fish kill this year is a very real concern. Irela Bagué, who used to chair the Biscayne Bay task force, is Miami-Dade County’s first Chief Bay Officer. This keeps her up at night.

“We are in a time crunch because summer is around the corner,” Bagué said.

A month into her position, Bagué had five abandoned vessels that were likely spewing chemicals near Pelican Harbor in North Bay Village removed with the help of the Miami-Dade Police Department, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, and the Department of Environmental Resources Management.

“It’s a huge problem, and we’re one of the worst counties with that problem,” Bagué said. “People just abandon these things. It’s a huge bureaucratic problem to remove them.”

Miami-Dade County recently allocated more funding to remove even more. It is just a bandaid to a patient on life support, but for the first time, there is urgency and action. Bagué said her next task is the appointment of a watershed management board made up of representatives from state, local, and federal agencies such as DERM and FWC to delegate corrective action.

“I think all the stars are aligned right now to move a lot of things forward,” Bagué said. “The idea was really to create a partnership between the county, the state, and the federal government because we’re all going to need to fund some of these big infrastructure improvements together.”

Jose Cueto is the interim director for the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department. The agency recently finished installing two pump stations, and a force main along Northwest Seventh Avenue near 155th Street in North Miami. This allows 150 commercial properties and some are residents to connect to new sewer lines in an effort to eliminate some of the failing septic tanks that leak thousands of gallons of wastewater into the groundwater that feeds the bay.

These two projects represent an investment of over $5 million. The entirety of the program will involve an investment of over $126 million — the largest septic to sewer program in the state. Miami-Dade County has over 120,000 septic tanks. Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava is prioritizing the conversion of septics that are most vulnerable to sea-level rise.

“You feel the momentum. You feel the acceleration and it’s the number one priority for the county,” Cueto said.

Crowl said this can’t happen soon enough since dangerous nutrients are constantly spewing from leaking septic tanks and sewage spills along with fertilizer and toxic storm drain runoffs. All that marine debris and plastic pollution is killing our bay.

“We have no option we have to get our infrastructure put into place,” Crowl said. “We have to save Biscayne Bay! What else are we going to do?”

Irela Bagué agrees.

“It’s all up to us to make sure we improve the health of the bay,” Bagué said. “Tampa Bay did it. The Chesapeake Bay did it. We can do it.”

About the Author:

Louis Aguirre is an Emmy-award winning journalist who anchors weekday newscasts and serves as WPLG Local 10’s Environmental Advocate.