Dolphins and other brains of Biscayne

Nature geeks and national parks go together like peanut butter and jelly, but until this week, this obvious combination had never been served at one of South Florida’s major parks. To right this wrong, scientists who study within Biscayne National Park joined with park managers for two days to share their mental prowess and their concern for the beautiful but threatened Biscayne Bay. Nearly 50 scientists spoke on topics ranging from shipwreck archeology to lionfish invasions to the highly endangered Schaus Swallowtail Butterfly.

Jenny Litz chronicles the plight of Miami's real dolphins.
Jenny Litz chronicles the plight of Miami’s real dolphins.

Did you know that 250 dolphins call Biscayne Bay home? Jenny Litz of the National Marine Fisheries Service has been monitoring these local pods since 1994, and she has identified 94 contaminates in their tissues, including 78 PCBs and 6 DDTs. The bay’s southern dolphin population is slightly less tainted than the northern population, where a large human population nearby contributes to high levels of pollution. These dolphins are the most contaminated in Florida.

Ligia Collado-Vides of Florida International University, my professor, has been investigating a curious algae bloom located just outside of Biscayne National Park and near the shoreline of Coral Gables, south of the City of Miami. The bloom has been continuous since 2002, making it one of the most consistent ever observed. A question remains if the bloom, caused by two algae species, contains a species new to science, although it could be a deep-water Bahamian species (Anadyomene linkiana) that has migrated to the shallows of the bay.

“The bloom is persistent. Eventually you don’t like it very much,” says Collado-Vides, who usually sees the beauty in seaweed. The bloom causes a shift from healthy seagrass beds to the double-seaweed whammy that takes over and eventually strips the bottom bare. The bloom is caused by high levels of nitrogen, which could come from sewage or other run-off from land.

These problems are just a few of the many threats to sensitive habitats in Biscayne National Park, which includes coral reefs, seagrass communities, mangroves, and hardwood hammocks. The park is unique in that 95 percent is underwater, and no entrance fee is charged, as anyone with a boat can zip in and out. Reckless boaters cause major damage within this national treasure, and threats from outside the park are even greater. At the park’s southern end is the Turkey Point nuclear plant, and at its northern end is Key Biscayne and the nearby millions of residents of greater Miami.

Scientists, managers, and the public need to come together more often to take a deeper look into what is happening under and over the water here. This symposium was a good first step.

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