Featured image: Biscayne Bay fish kill (Courtesy of Tomm El-Saieh and Miami Waterkeeper)

The takeaway message:

A recent fish kill in Miami’s Biscayne Bay is a symptom of chronic nutrient pollution, signifying what scientists are deeming a ‘regime shift’ in the once pristine waterway. But Biscayne Bay is just one example —as excess nutrients and fecal bacteria can be found in water bodies across the state, costing the state millions in cleanup and lost tourism 

What’s going on?

Last month, thousands of fish were found belly-up in South Florida’s Biscayne Bay, and the nonprofit Miami Waterkeeper suggests the cause is a familiar problem  nutrient pollution, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus from stormwater runoff, fertilizer and leaky septic tanks 

Scientists say this type of pollution in the once pristine bay is only set to worsen with sea level rise and increased flooding. Last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a report stating Biscayne Bay is undergoing a regime shift as chlorophyll and algae begin to dominate healthy seagrass.  

Across Florida, various forms of nutrient pollution not only harm wildlife, but also pose health risks to humans. According to new data from Environment Florida Research and Policy Center, 187 out of 261 beaches tested in Florida in 2019 had enough pollution to put swimmers at risk of getting sick on at least one day.” The study specifically looked at fecal indicator bacteria, which ends up in coastal waters through sewage spills and other runoff.  

But scientists and activists say extreme pollution scenarios like these can be prevented, and they are continuing to push for the same solutions they’ve presented in months and years beforeThe remedies include updating and maintaining Florida’s wastewater infrastructure, decreasing pesticide use and creating educational programs for the public about the importance of seagrass and mangroves. 

Irela Bagué, chair of the Miami-Dade County Biscayne Bay Task Force, said to the Miami Herald, “Talking about solutions for Biscayne Bay is like Groundhog Day. I just hope that this fish kill will get everyone talking and that we’ll find the political will to get things done.” 

Why it matters.

A 2012 study by the Stockholm Environmental Institute estimated that clean water in Florida is worth between $1.3 and $10.5 billion a year, which report authors say is a conservative estimate. But dealing with nutrient pollution and blue-green algae blooms in just five of Florida’s major water bodies has cost the state at least $20 million over the past decade, according to a recent study by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group. That estimate only considered the costs of prevention and treatment, not the impacts on tourism, recreation, real estate, wildlife or commercial fishing.  

In addition to the economic cost, pollution is harmful to Florida’s ecology. For example, excess nutrients and algae blooms can suck up dissolved oxygen that fishes need to breathe, eventually suffocating them when the levels drop too low. Algae blooms also can kill off seagrass and other aquatic plants that serve as food and habitat to many marine and freshwater organisms. Finally, fecal bacteria and algae blooms can also pose health risks to humans.  

What can I do?

Learn more:

  • About how commercial pesticides, such as those used on lawns, contribute to eutrophication and algae blooms.
  • About how pollution in Florida’s waterways affects the whole environment. 
  • About how you can reduce your negative impact on water pollution. 


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