ISLAMORADA — Boat captain Tad Burke looks out over Florida Bay and sees an ecosystem that's dying as politicians, land owners and environmentalists bicker.
In his 25 years on these waters, he has seen the declines in shrimp and lobster that use the bay as a nursery, and less of the coveted species such as bonefish that draw recreational anglers from around the world.
Experts fear a collapse of the entire ecosystem, threatening not only some of the nation's most popular tourism destinations — Everglades National Park and the Florida Keys — but a commercial and recreational fishery worth millions of dollars.
Florida Bay is a sprawling estuary at the state's southern tip, covering nearly three times the area of New York City.
The headwaters of the Everglades — starting some 300 miles north near Orlando — used to end up here after flowing south in a shallow sheet like a broad, slow-moving river, filtering through miles of muck, marsh and sawgrass.
Historically, the bay thrived on that mix of freshwater from the Everglades and saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico.
But to the north of the bay, South Florida development has left the land scored by roads, dikes and miles of flood-control canals to make way for homes and farms, choking off the freshwater.
The ill effects extend even across the Florida Keys to the shallow coral reefs in the Atlantic Ocean. Many popular commercial fish such as grouper and snapper begin their lives in the bay before migrating to the ocean and to the reefs.
"If Florida Bay heads south and there's a lot less fish in there, well, when that's done, it's all over down here," said Burke, head of the Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association. "When that goes, your reefs are going to go, too, and it'll just be a chain reaction."
Algae blooms block life-giving sunlight from penetrating the water's surface. Sea grasses that filter the water and provide habitat for the food chain are dying. And some migratory birds aren't returning.
"The health of Florida Bay is very much tied to the state of the Everglades, and the Everglades isn't improving either," says Tom Van Lent, senior scientist with the not-for-profit Everglades Foundation.
For decades, the state has struggled to find a way to restore natural flow through the Everglades and curb pollution caused by runoff from sugar farms, cow pastures and urban sprawl.
But attempts to fix the Everglades have been dogged by politics, funding shortfalls and contentious, litigation-filled disagreements over solutions. And while land has been purchased and some projects completed, key restoration components are undone.
"It's really aggravating," Burke says. "We've seen very little, if any, really groundbreaking projects that would help change the flow into Florida Bay."
A litany of lawsuits are partly to blame, says Carol Wehle, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, the state agency overseeing Everglades restoration.
Name an environmental group, and the agency has been sued by them.
While pro-environment groups say their lawsuits are not designed to stop restoration — but to improve projects — litigation inevitably creates delays. And some plaintiffs, such as Florida Crystals, a major sugar producer that farms in the Everglades, is trying to protect its business.
Wehle calls them all "obstructionists," including the Miccosukee Tribe, which has her agency back in court today for closing arguments in a lawsuit.
The Miccosukee, who call the Everglades their ancestral home, have sued the water district repeatedly. In the current case, the tribe and Florida Crystals are trying to block the state's planned $536 million purchase of land in the Everglades from another sugar giant, U.S. Sugar Corp.
The water district says the deal is a historic opportunity to take sugar out of production and provide land to build much-needed reservoirs and treatment areas to clean and store water.
Tribe spokeswoman Joette Lorion says the deal could end up costing taxpayers billions of dollars, leaving little money to pay for restoration projects, and will create more delays as officials figure out exactly what to do with the new land. Florida Crystals also argues the purchase would give its main competitor an unfair business advantage.
Back on Florida Bay, Burke just wants something done before it's too late. "In a lot of ways," he says, "it's still pristine and beautiful down here, but it's also on its last dying breath."