One of the most beautiful, and unique environments in the entire state, the Florida Keys, are a 125-mile long chain of islands that begins just south of Miami, stretches to within 90 miles of Cuba, and forms the southernmost part of the continental United States.
The Keys are a truly unique environment. They consist of a variety of habitats including the third largest coral reef in the world, coastal mangrove forests, seagrasses, pinelands, and hardwood hammocks They are also home to diverse flora (over 120 species of trees alone) and fauna, including two species that have evolved to the unique habitat; the Florida panther, and the Keys deer. For the angler, there is a wide range of species and fishing opportunities from reefs and wrecks, to the plethora of gamefish to be found in the Dry Tortugas, or the miles of walkable saltwater flats surround the islands.
It is precisely this variety of habitats that make Florida's Keys susceptible to the stresses of human impact and urbanization.
In this post, we're going to explore the threats that human activity and unchecked urban development pose to this most interesting ecosystem.
The Impact of Human Activity
The Keys ecosystem is diverse. It is made up of a range of habitats from coral reefs and mangroves to pinelands and all are rich in unique species. Human beings are also a major part of these ecosystems and their activities impact every habitat and the plants and animals that live there.
Because the Keys consist of a small area of land, population growth and increasing tourism bring severe impacts. More people means more pollution. The population of the Keys has grown by over 3.9 million people from 1970 to 2008. Orange groves and wild areas have been replaced by strip malls, housing developments, and roadways. The growing population has contributed to increased water pollution, septic overflow, and storm runoff that is full of pesticides, heavy metals, and oil.
More tourists mean more visitors engaging in outdoor activities like boating and fishing. Along with tourists and residents enjoying the outdoors, commercial fishing has become a problem. Overfishing has depleted species and destroyed underwater habitats changing the complex chain of life.
Boating has also seriously impacted the keys. From spilled oil and fuel to propellers scarring large areas of seagrass, damaging fragile coral reefs, and contributing to the decline of rare species like the Florida manatee.
Another human impact on the Keys and other parts of the state is the introduction of non-native species. Whether it's using non-native plants for landscaping or escaping or releasing exotic pets (like the Burmese pythons in the Everglades), invasive species take up residence, and with no natural predators to out-compete native species changing the dynamics of the ecosystem. Two examples of introduced species negatively impacting the Keys ecosystem include the lionfish and Guinea grass.
The Impact of Urban Development
Population growth and the tremendous increases in tourism throughout the Keys have resulted in increased demand for residential and commercial properties. As a result, large tracts of lands have been developed deteriorating or destroying valuable natural habitats.
Increased development means increases in pollutants. Nutrient-rich wastewater released from cesspits, septic tanks, and treatment plants has resulted in dangerous and toxic algae blooms. Other sources of water pollution as a result of urban development include fertilizers, herbicides, petroleum products, pesticides, and metals all of which may be impacting several habitats including coral reefs, seagrasses, and mangroves.
Urbanization can also contribute to global climate change as roads and buildings trap heat, increasing the need for energy for climate control like air conditioning. Engineered structures like the man-made canals on Marathon Key can alter the flow and function of tides as well as negatively impact the environment through increased dockage of boats in residential areas.
Along with these local indirect and direct impacts, global warming is projected to heat the waters surrounding the Keys by 4 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit, causing a rise in sea levels and resulting in serious changes that are too rapid to repair.
As we become more aware of the impact that humans can have on an environment, local governments need to get more aggressive in terms of enacting legislation to control urbanization. Battles are ongoing between various town councils throughout the Keys to get the issue of rapid urban development under control. As residents begin to wake up to the needs of the environment, controlling urban development has become a make-or-break issue for the survival of the Keys.