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Everglades cleanup may shrink lobster population

The Everglades restoration project could wipe out up to 10 percent of the Florida Keys' lobster population by increasing the amount of freshwater in the Florida Bay, researchers said.

Over decades, freshwater flow from the Everglades into the bay has been greatly reduced, making parts of the bay high-saline environments where Caribbean spiny lobster thrive. But the $8.4-billion Everglades restoration plan will redirect freshwater into the bay.

Scientists from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., found that the survival rate for lobsters _ particularly small lobsters _ decreases dramatically as the water becomes less saline.

Five sponge species, which provide necessary protective habitat for the lobsters, also die in low saline water, according to research by Mark Butler and Don Behringer.

"When the salinity starts to change, the big lobsters will get out of Dodge," Butler said. "The little ones will try to move, but they won't be able to maintain it: It's too taxing. So they'll be marching around, and without sponges or octocorals, they won't have any place to hide from predators. The small ones will really get hammered."

From 1975 through 2000, Florida's commercial lobster harvest averaged 6.3-million pounds a year, largely from the Keys. In 2001, the harvest dropped to 3.4-million pounds.

Combined with overfishing and disease, Butler said the Everglades restoration could severely affect the lobster population.

"I wouldn't be surprised at all if the number of lobsters in the Keys declines 25 to 50 percent in the next decade," he said.

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