“Imagine going to your office, and discovering a slow leak. You’d keep searching until you found it and fixed it, right?” asks Capt. Steve Friedman, commodore of Keys Fishing Guides Association. Friedman sat on a panel to discuss Florida Bay on Feb. 22 at the Angler House Marina in Islamorada.

“Florida Bay — it’s my office,” Friedman said. “And so, I’m asking, ‘Where’s the water? Why don’t we have enough water?’” Thinking about the answer, he adds, “Florida Bay is literally everything. Because if we don’t have the Florida Bay, we don’t have life in Monroe County.”

Similarly, Shannon Estenoz of the Everglades Foundation, one of the evening’s hosts, prods her panelists and the audience, “What happens when the bay goes belly-up?” This ominous question looms at the edges of the panel discussion and of conversations all night.

Friedman, Estenoz and everyone in attendance agree that South Florida and the Everglades desperately need an influx of fresh water. Ecologist Jerry Noonan explains that we must bring fresh water through the Everglades to Florida Bay to restore both ecosystems. “Stop sending it east and west,” says Noonan. He goes on: “You must support Everglades restoration with everything you have, because everything you love depends on it.”

Water management in Florida is a controversial subject. Water is the basis of South Florida’s economy and culture, and its regulation and scarcity tend to elicit strong, opposing emotions from scientists, fishermen, homeowners, farmers, tourists, politicians, etc. That’s why Jessica Steinmiller, designer of the “Restore the Everglades” logo used for the event, based the design on the “yin/yang” symbol. “It represents unity, and I wanted a way to unify all the coastal ecosystems of South Florida and put them into one symbol. The blue heron and sawgrass of the Everglades are balanced by the tarpon and seagrass of the Everglades, but they both need water. That’s the key,” said Steinmiller.

Most speakers at Florida Bay Day call for politicians to be accountable to the community by supporting Everglades. Estenoz names specific programs that could alleviate some of the stresses the Everglades and the bay are facing. She calls for investment at a scale that will actually help and for legislative support for Gov. Ron DeSantis’ new budget request, which includes $325 million for Everglades restoration. “We need more political will. It’s not just a plumbing problem,” emphasizes Estenoz.

It appears some politicians agree and are joining the community in this fight to save the Everglades and Florida Bay. Deb Gillis, the mayor of Islamorada, and Cheryl Meads, a newly appointed South Florida Water Management District governing board member, joined their constituents at Florida Bay Day to listen and learn, and Congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell sent her district chief of staff, Daniel Horton-Diaz, with a statement in support of Everglades restoration: “A healthy Everglades system ensures that our community will have clean water, fresh food, a vibrant local economy, and a national treasure to pass on to future generations. … You have my support and I ask to continue to have yours as we work together to preserve the Everglades now and for generations to come.” To cheers and applause, Estenoz urged the audience to keep building awareness in the community and in elected officials about the crucial nature of water quality and flow in Florida Bay.

Capt. Benny Blanco, a full-time fishing guide in the Everglades and Biscayne National Parks, emphasized how events such as Florida Bay Day are crucial to bring community education and awareness to this important issue. “We see more and more events every year, and these small events, albeit tiny, are turning the tide because they’re educating the community,” said Blanco.

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“The everyday person is getting involved, because people are beginning to realize that water quality affects everyone — Realtors, teachers, hotel workers,” adds Capt. Chris Wittman, owner and captain of Stillwater Charters.

A little more than three years ago, Wittman realized how degraded the bay was becoming due to lack of clean water flowing through the Everglades. He co-founded the non-profit Captains for Clean Water to give “people like us (fishermen) a mechanism to understand the problems and solutions concerning our fisheries and water.” The group has enjoyed steady growth in interest and membership, something Wittman attributes to growing awareness of the difficult water issues South Florida faces. “We’re just fishermen, the David in a David-and-Goliath battle to save the Florida Bay,” he said. “But if we keep talking together and keep educating the community, we can make a difference.”

At the end of the panel discussion and community conversation, Blanco implores everyone in the room to take up the cause. “I’m gonna take this fight to my grave, or we’ll fix it before then. And I ask you all to join me and educate others. Don’t stop till we fix this.”

Estenoz summarized the night’s importance aloud: “In the Florida Keys, this community’s voice has been and continues to be one of the most important for Everglades restoration. It was this (Upper Keys) community and these fishermen that started it all. Now let’s keep the conversation going, keep talking about the bay, and when it’s time, speak up! We’re going to fix Florida Bay from the bottom up!”

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