ISLAMORADA, Fla. — Boat captain Tad Burke looks out over Florida Bay and sees an ecosystem that's dying as politicians, land owners and environmentalists bicker.
He's been plying these waters for nearly 25 years, and has seen the declines in shrimp and lobster that use the bay as a nursery, and less of the coveted species like bonefish that draw recreational sportsmen from around the world.
"Bonefish used to be very prevalent, and now we don't see a tenth of the amount that we used to find in the bay, and even around the Keys because the habitat no longer supports the population," says Burke, head of the Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association.
Experts fear a collapse of the entire ecosystem, threatening not only some of the nation's most popular tourism destinations – Everglades National Park and the Florida Keys – but a commercial and recreational fishery worth millions of dollars.
Florida Bay is a sprawling estuary at the state's southern tip, covering nearly three times the area of New York City.
The headwaters of the Everglades – starting some 300 miles north near Orlando – used to end up here after flowing south in a shallow sheet like a broad, slow-moving river, filtering through miles of muck, marsh and sawgrass.
Historically, the bay thrived on that perfect mix of freshwater from the Everglades and saltwater from the adjacent Gulf of Mexico. It was a virtual Garden of Eden, home to a bounty of wading birds, fish, sea grasses and sponges.
But to the north of the bay, man's unforgiving push to develop South Florida has left the land dissected with roads, dikes and miles of flood control canals to make way for homes and farms, choking off the freshwater flow and slowly killing the bay.
The ill effects extend even across the narrow spit of land that makes up the Florida Keys to the shallow coral reefs in the Atlantic Ocean. Many popular commercial fish like grouper and snapper begin their lives in the bay before migrating into the ocean to the reefs.
"If Florida Bay heads south and there's a lot less fish in there, well, when that's done, it's all over down here," Burke says. "When that goes, your reefs are going to go, too, and it'll just be a chain reaction.
"You could argue that the bay has already collapsed," he adds.
Algae blooms block life-giving sunlight from penetrating the water's surface. Sea grasses that filter the water and provide habitat for the food chain are dying. And some migratory birds aren't returning.
"The health of Florida Bay is very much tied to the state of the Everglades, and the Everglades isn't improving either," says Tom Van Lent, senior scientist with the not-for-profit Everglades Foundation. "Their fates are one and the same."
For decades, the state has struggled to find a way to restore natural flow through the Everglades and curb the pollution caused by runoff from sugar farms, cow pastures and urban sprawl. It is the largest such wetlands restoration effort ever.
"Having that water coming down from the Everglades is key," says Rob Clift of the National Parks Conservation Association. "It has to be restored."
Attempts to fix the Everglades by constructing water treatment marshes and reservoirs, among other things, have been dogged by politics, funding shortfalls, and contentious, litigation-filled disagreements over the best solutions. And while land has been purchased and some projects completed, key restoration components are undone.
"It's really aggravating," Burke says. "We've seen very little, if any, really ground breaking projects that would help change the flow into Florida Bay."
A litany of lawsuits filed by parties favoring one solution over another are partly to blame, says Carol Wehle, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, the state agency overseeing Everglades restoration.
Name an environmental group, and the agency has been sued by them.
While pro-environment groups say their lawsuits are not designed to stop restoration – but to improve projects – litigation inevitably creates delays. And some plaintiffs, like Florida Crystals, a major sugar producer which farms in the Everglades, is trying to protect its business.
Wehle calls them all "obstructionists," including the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians who have her agency back in court Aug. 6 for closing arguments in yet another lawsuit.
"There are a handful of people that choose not to participate in this process and instead use litigation, and who is losing? The environment is losing," Wehle says.
The Miccosukee, who call the Everglades their ancestral home, have sued the water district repeatedly. In the current case, the tribe and Florida Crystals are trying to block the state's planned $536 million purchase of land in the Everglades from another sugar giant, U.S. Sugar Corp.
The water district says the deal is a historic opportunity to take sugar out of production and provide land to build much-needed reservoirs and treatment areas to clean and store water.
Tribe spokeswoman Joette Lorion says the deal could end up costing taxpayers billions of dollars, leaving little money to pay for restoration projects, and will create more delays as officials figure out exactly what to do with the new land. Florida Crystals also argues the purchase would give its main competitor an unfair business advantage.
"Meeting upon meeting, and the Everglades continues to die," Lorion says.
Back on Florida Bay, Burke just wants something done before it's too late. To the casual visitor, the area is stunning even today. But Burke knows better.
"In a lot of ways," he says, "it's still pristine and beautiful down here, but it's also on its last dying breath."