Fishing guide Tad Burke is right at home on the water. It takes him less than an hour in his skiff to get from his neighborhood boat ramp in Tavernier to Rankin Key. That's a mangrove island just off the ragged southern edge of the mainland.
What Burke sees worries him.
"This used to be one of my favorite areas to fish," he said. This place used to be loaded with snook and redfish and tarpon laying off the edge of the flats out here. Now it's an area I wouldn't even consider stopping in."
It's not only the big game fish that clients pay big money to chase that are missing. It's also the little glass minnows and shrimp and stone crab.
"You don't see anything. There is no life here," Burke said. "It's just dead seagrass, a few cassiopeas that are drifting by, which is a jellyfish. But other than that, you see no bait, no life, nothing. It's just all dead."
For people who live and work on Florida Bay, the seagrass die-off that started last summer is like some kind of nightmare deja vu. Jim Fourqurean began to map seagrass in the bay in 1982 when he was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia.
"Florida Bay in the early '80s was a beautiful, clear water fishing heaven," Fourqurean said. He returned to the bay as a grad student to get his Ph.D. Now he's the director of marine research in the Keys for Florida International University.
He was working on the bay in 1987 when local fishermen raised the alarm about a seagrass die-off. South Florida was going through a drought and Florida Bay no longer was getting the freshwater it used to from the mainland Everglades. The bay went super saline, 1 1/2 times as salty as seawater. The drought finally broke in 1991.
"When it started to rain again, then algae blooms started up," Fourqurean said, "and they were really fierce."
More seagrass died. Every storm stirred up the sediment. Florida Bay's famously clear water was a murky mess.
"I remember vividly driving across Rankin Lake in Florida Bay, feeling sick to my stomach because this beautiful clear water place had turned from the most beautiful place I'd ever been to a brown, scummy pond," Fourqurean said. "It was just heartbreaking."
Wealthy and connected people — some of whom liked to fish in the bay — helped sell the initial $8 billion deal for Everglades restoration between the state and federal governments in 2000. After a few years, the algae blooms dissipated. The seagrasses started coming back. One restoration project redistributes water from the C-111 canal at the southern edge of the mainland.
"Unfortunately, it does not function when there's a drought," said Jerry Lorenz, research director for Audubon Florida. He's worked on the bay for 26 years.
"Each one of these completed projects by itself only does a little bit," Lorenz said. "It's when they all fit together that they'll do a lot."
El Niño ended South Florida's most recent drought, bringing lots of rain in what is normally the dry season. So water managers sent huge pulses of freshwater out to the mainland, causing problems for estuaries on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. That frustrates ecologists like Lorenz.
"It's time to start thinking about this as one system," he said.
Now scientists and fishermen can only wait and watch to see if the seagrass die-off will trigger another round of algae blooms on the bay — and another collapse that could last for years.