Essential Paddling Guide: Everglades, Biscayne National Parks' Treasures Need More Protections

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Keeping coral reefs in Biscayne National Park healthy is an ongoing job. NPS photo.

You have to get wet to truly appreciate Biscayne National Park in South Florida. Gazing out across Biscayne Bay, and beyond Hawk Channel into the Atlantic Ocean, you can take in the expanse of the park’s surface, but none of the wonders that lurk beneath.

At Biscayne, 95 percent of the landscape is actually waterscape, a wondrous realm of marine life and the skeletal remains of shipwrecks dating back hundreds of years. It’s a vast marine park perfect for exploring by sea kayak as well as with mask and fins.

While the park’s spectacular marine resources are under water, that doesn’t mean they’re not at risk from us. Coral reefs in Biscayne’s waters are being attacked by climate change, and both plunderers and unwitting visitors are damaging them and other park resources.

The park’s semi-tropical waters seem wonderfully warm to swimmers, but climate change is ever-so-slightly boosting the temperatures to the point where some corals are stressed. They in turn push out their “zooxanthellae” algae that give the corals their distinctive colors. If temperatures are warm enough for long enough, the corals themselves die, leaving behind white, or bleached looking, skeletons.

Decades of “bleaching” events and diseases have been devastating to coral reefs in and surrounding national parks in the Caribbean and South Florida, so much so that the losses are akin to “losing the Redwoods.”

Also harming these wonderful resources are divers who inadvertently kick them with their flippers, or back their boats into reefs. Park officials have respond by using buoys to mark both reefs in the shallows, as well as historic shipwrecks so anchors aren’t dropped onto them.

Biscayne’s once-rich fisheries also are risk, from commercial and recreational anglers. Numbers, and overall size, of some species have dropped substantially. The park’s prior attempt to implement a marine reserve that would be closed to fishing was opposed by the state of Florida, and now park staff are supporting the state’s preference to allow fishing.

According to Caroline McLaughlin, Biscayne Restoration Program Analyst with the National Parks Conservation Association, “Marine reserves are the best, science-based way to protect and sustain coral reef ecosystems and fisheries populations. The park’s decision to move away from the use of a marine reserve is missed opportunity to provide much-needed protection for Biscayne’s threatened resources.”

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Everglades officials would like to protect part of the Ten Thousand Islands area as wilderness. USGS photo.

However, Biscayne officials are pushing a fisheries management plan with a goal of boosting the abundance and average size of fishery-targeted species in the park’s waters by 20 percent.

Next door in Everglades National Park, a similar debate is under way around the park’s desires to create a wilderness waterway in the park’s 10,000 Islands area. While the designation is proposed in the park’s draft General Management Plan, some in the fishing community oppose it as it would restrict access to some areas to non-motorized watercraft, such as sea kayaks.

You can help protect these waters and their resources by contacting the two parks and voicing your support for protections against damaging activities and the need for increased enforcement and education.