As freshwater leaves the Everglades and flows south and east, it enters Biscayne National Park. Today, this pristine water enters Biscayne Bay through a series of manmade canals and helps feed the park’s unique aquatic ecosystems.
The park itself is unlike any other in the country - 95 percent of it is in the Atlantic Ocean. While much of its water is salty, freshwater is critical for the bay’s abundant corals and seagrasses.
Park ranger Gary Bremen says water used to flow into the bay through underwater springs. “There were places where, if you knew the right spot to go, you could throw a bucket over the side of your boat and pull up fresh water to drink right in the middle of the bay,” he says. “That doesn’t happen anymore.”
Bremen says urban development along Florida’s southwest coast has cut off Biscayne from the ecosystem that once fed it – the swath of wetlands that stretches from Lake Okeechobee to Everglades National Park. Today, the canal system that has replaced the springs is not enough to keep up with the bay’s increasing salinity.
Unlike other national parks in the rest of the country, Biscayne is a place where it is impossible to divorce the environment from the human communities that interact with it.
Bremen says there is evidence that humans have been living around the bay for 10,000 years – since the end of the last ice age. Across the centuries, Biscayne has been a home to Tequesta Native Americans, a haven for pirates and the proposed location of a resort city called Islandia.
Islandia was to be built on Elliott Key in Biscayne Bay, and Bremen says developers did everything they could to stifle conservation efforts in the 1960s.
“In a last-ditch effort to spoil the area before it became a national park, the people who wanted to see Islandia happen brought in bulldozers and bulldozed a highway six-lanes wide right down the center of Elliott Key for seven miles,” Bremen says. “It was just eight months later that Congress established Biscayne National Monument, the predecessor to Biscayne National Park.”
Today the highway remains, lost among Elliott Key’s lush mangrove inlets. Despite the would-be development, the island and the waters around it teem with fish, manatees and tiny jellyfish.
But one does not have to look to the past to see signs of human impact on the park. “The park functions more like a recreation area than a national park,” says Bremen.
About 90 percent of its 508,000 annual visitors come into the park on boats – and Bremen says often without knowing it.
“I’ll say, ‘Have you ever been to Biscayne National Park?’ and they’ll say something like, ‘Oh no we like to go to Boca Chita Key instead.’ ”
Boca Chita Key, however, lies within Biscayne National Park. But with its harbor full of yachts, families holding barbecues onshore and Miami’s downtown skyline on the horizon, one would be forgiven for forgetting that it is federally protected land.
From the top of Boca Chita’s lighthouse one can see the effect boating has had on the park – amid the blue-green seagrasses dart streaks of white sand where boats ran aground, leaving the underwater ecosystem unable to recover.
Further out, past Boca Chita and Elliott Keys, lies perhaps the park’s greatest asset – the third largest coral reef in the world and the only one in North America. Unlike near Boca Chita Key, ships out in the open ocean can sink in it. Shipwrecks like the Mandalay that sank in 1966 when it collided with the reef are a testament to the interplay between humans and Biscayne’s varied natural treasures.
One of these treasures is Biscayne’s fish, and park visitors have always been eager to get their hands on them. The shoreline next to the park’s visitor center is lined with fishermen casting their lines out into the bay. Despite its shallow waters, Biscayne Bay yields large sea creatures like barracudas and marlins.
Although there are regulations about catch and release in the bay, fishing here is popular with local
Michael Kashem often fishes in the park on his days off from working for Toyota in Cutler Bay. “It’s close to my house, you know,” he says. “It’s a part of our community. Suppose if we didn’t have it here. We’d have to go way down to Key Largo.”
Fishing is Kashem’s hobby, but for many who frequent the park on motorboats it’s a way of life. Because of the park’s proximity to Miami, many people who grew up in the area have been fishing in the bay their entire lives. So when the National Park Service announced it was establishing a marine reserve in part of the bay where fishing would be prohibited, controversy among the local community ensued.
Tico Delgado is the assistant manager at Bite Me Bait Shack in Homestead near Biscayne. The reserve has received broad support, but he says it will have drastic consequences for fishermen like him.
“I think it’s going to hurt a lot of small businesses like ours,” he says. “I know a lot of people who’ve been fishing there since they were like 3 years old. What are they going to do now?”
Despite the challenges it creates for fishermen, the reserve would allow wildlife to flourish again by allowing fish an area in which to freely reproduce. And for many like Robert O’Bryant, who heads the Mahogany Youth Corporation that seeks to introduce urban youth to the national park, keeping the fish population healthy is crucial to making sure future generations will be able to fish in the bay too.
“I’m a fisherman, but I approve that zone for non-fishing,” he says, “because we have to protect our environment for our kids.”
Bremen says youth outreach like the kind O’Bryant does is crucial for the future of the park. That’s why these days fish are not the only things being caught in Biscayne National Park.
The National Park Service has gone to great lengths to attract Pokemon Go players to the park – Bremen says there are now eight Poke Stops there, along with a Pokemon gym. Apparently you can also catch lots of aquatic Pokemon out by Boca Chita Key.
“What did you catch?” Bremen asks kids he sees with their phones out. “Pokemon. They catch a Meowth, and I pull out a replica of a sabertooth cat tooth and show them that a cat with a tooth this big lived right here 10,000 years ago. Suddenly they’re connecting in a whole different way.”