The campaign to save Florida Bay should move to the ballot box, speakers fumed Thursday in
"Talking to the politicians obviously is not working," Islamorada Village Council member Jim Mooney said after a presentation on Florida Bay's woes to the village board.
"I think you've got to march on Big Sugar and got to go big," Mooney said. "Make a statement the entire world has to see."
"It's up to each and every one of us to send those people a message," Councilman Dennis Ward said, suggesting sugar boycotts and demonstrations outside grocery stores.
Congressional and state candidates "need to be vetted [on Florida Bay] by everyone in the Keys," he said.
Presentations on Florida Bay's worrisome status by Stephen Davis, a wetland ecologist for the Everglades Foundation, and Dave Preston of BullSugar.org, a group fighting government sugar subsidies, were followed by a string of annoyed residents.
"Rankin Bay is now dead, period. Snake Bight is dead," said fishing guide David Purdo, a former councilman. "We are losing the economy of the Florida Keys. Somehow we've got to stop it, but I don't know how."
"It's pathetic," said fishing outfitter Sandy Moret. He described a recent meeting on bay problems as "the exact same meeting" he attended 35 years ago. "There's no political will."
Audubon biologist and fishing guide Peter Frezza said, "The dire situation in Florida Bay is pretty evident."
"The shallow-water fisheries really are in trouble. We're losing skiff guides," Frezza said. "That's history and a part of the community and I feel it's going away."
Florida Bay is undergoing a massive seagrass die-off, which the Everglades Foundation and other environmental groups say was caused by a summer drought that turned bay waters abnormally salty.
That in turn caused oxygen deprivation for seagrasses, which led to an increase in hydrogen sulfides that destroyed seagrass roots.
After a century of statewide development, Florida Bay has received far less water from Central Florida and the Everglades than it historically received.
Last summer's drought worsened the problem, with the result leading to a seagrass die-off similar to the massive incident of 1987-91 that included an algae bloom that destroyed bay sponges and drove fish away.
A plan to create a huge storage area for fresh water south of Lake Okeechobee that could be released when needed has stalled.
Conservationists say elected officials who cater to the demands of Florida's two major sugar-producing companies are to blame.
The Big Sugar companies "effectively control every drop of water in our state" through lobbying and campaign donations, Preston said.
"We've got to focus on the land" for the storage area, Preston said, "and the current powers that be who stand in the way of fixing the problem."
"It's a heavily subsidized industry [by government price supports] and we're subsidizing them to destroy our waters," Preston said.
Former village councilman Ted Blackburn said, "What do you do when both sides take money from Big Sugar? It seems hopeless but I guess you start at the ground level and keep going."
Government subsidies make the sugar-growing land valuable, Village Councilman Mike Forster said. "Take away the subsidies and you can buy the land for cheap."
"Everybody agrees on the problem and the solution, except for two [sugar-producing] families in the center of the state," Forster said. "The political will is not there at this point."
Islamorada is joining with Monroe County and other Keys governments to craft a strong resolution on the need for Everglades restoration and increased water flow to Florida Bay, Islamorada Mayor Deb Gillis said.
County Commissioner George Neugent said Friday that he expects Lake Okeechobee and Florida Bay to become major discussion points in the two federal and state election cycles.
"We're certainly not going to forget, and the people in Sanibel, Fort Myers and Port St. Lucie aren't going to forget either," Neugent said.