A message from a Florida State researcher has surfaced from the depths of the Caribbean's third-largest lobster nursery: once abundant spiny crustaceans in that area are becoming scarcer.
Biological science Professor William Herrnkind said the lobsters are the latest casualties of the destruction of the Florida Everglades ecosystem.
"Many young lobsters aren't living long enough to reproduce, because disturbances caused by the lack of fresh water from the Everglades into Florida Bay are destroying the loggerhead sponges that shelter them from predators," said Herrnkind, who recently completed his 11th summer studying the bay at the tip of Florida. "The prospect of sighting baby lobsters in parts of the bay may soon be as rare as finding a treasure chest on a sunken Spanish galleon."
Human tampering, he said, has led to polluted drainage into the Everglades and billions of gallons of water annually diverted from the Everglades into the Atlantic Ocean. The result has left Florida Bay parched for fresh water and the spiny lobsters threatened.
A brackish estuary just three years ago, the northern bay is now a "hypersaline lagoon that is choking on salt," Herrnkind said.
"The shortage of fresh water has caused a cascading effect that kills whole sea grass beds and serves as a springboard for algae clouds to destroy sponges and disrupt other marine life throughout the bay," Herrnkind said. Algae clog a sponge's filtering system that carries sea water to its tissues, he said.
In algae-plagued areas analyzed by Herrnkind, biologist Mark Butler of Old Dominion University and Chief Scientist John Hunt of the Florida Marine Research Institute's Marathon Field Laboratory, no sponges were found and there were 70 percent less lobsters than in unaffected areas.
Herrnkind and his colleagues plan to expand research into southwestern Florida Bay near the lower Keys to assess the health of the lobster nursery there.