What the Fish Happened….?

By Liangy Fernandez-Calli and Mary Benton

What a horrifying sight and smell to wake up to.

In recent days, our beautiful Biscayne Bay has been marred by scenes straight out of an apocalyptic movie with thousands of dead fish washing ashore from North Miami to Virginia Key. After multiple water samples and abiotic samples were collected and independently examined by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, Miami Department of Environmental Resources Management, Florida International University, and Miami Waterkeeper, it was determined that the cause lies in a lack of dissolved oxygen (DO) due in part to warm temperatures, coupled with sewage leaks, septic tanks, pet waste, stormwater runoff, pesticides and nutrients found in fertilizers which feed algae that depress oxygen levels.

Unfortunately, this is not new.  For decades, environmentalists have been sounding the alarm to deaf ears.  It is a real problem that has been worsening with time due to lack of awareness, lack of leadership and failure to actively participate in better practices. In other words, it is on us to save our beloved Biscayne Bay and the other waterways around South Florida.

All is not lost. We have an opportunity to help restore and conserve our Biscayne Bay and our surroundings altogether.  In some cases, it is a matter of simply changing our habits.  In others, we need to change our mindsets.  

Pet and Human Waste 

Cramer doesn’t want to be part of the problem.

Let’s start with the easiest habit to change: pick up after your pet.  We know most of you already do so, since you likely would be persona non grata in your neighborhood if you didn’t.  But keeping your pet waste from getting washed into the bay is an additional reason to be a good citizen not only of your neighborhood, but of this planet.

Septic systems are another source of contamination for nearby waterways.  The EPA has some good tips on how to deal with yours, from toilet to drainfield.


Fertilizer Use

If you must use chemical fertilizer, please be mindful and read the label, ensuring that the product is a slow release fertilizer.

Miami Waterkeeper (MWK) is an organization whose mission is to defend, protect, and preserve South Florida’s watershed through citizen engagement and community action rooted in sound science and research.  They work to ensure swimmable, drinkable, fishable water for all.  There is compelling scientific evidence for the need for ordinances governing the use of fertilizers, including the following provisions:

  • No phosphorus application
  • No fertilizer applied during the summer rainy season
  • 50% slow release Nitrogen
  • 15 ft. setback from waterways and storm drains

Miami Dade County does not have such an ordinance, but there is no reason why you can’t go ahead and follow these provisions on your own.  Learn more about the problem and what you can do to be part of the solution.



Composting is an easy way to add nutrient rich soil that benefits your plants and the environment.  Photo by Sipakorn Yamkasikorn from Pexels.

You can make your very own environmentally-friendly fertilizer for free by composting your kitchen and garden scraps.  Why is this important?  When you toss your kitchen waste in the trash can, it ends up in a plastic bag that will never decompose that gets trucked to a landfill where the kitchen scraps will create methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that is contributing to climate change and the global warming that is sickening bodies of water like Biscayne Bay.  The same thing happens if your municipality requires you to bag your leaves, which make wonderful mulch that enriches your soil, conserves moisture, and suppresses weeds.  By composting, you become part of the solution rather than contributing to the problem.  You will be amazed at the rich soil that will result, that you can spread around on plants that can use a little fertilizer.  Here is a link for more information on how to start composting from the EPA and information that runs the gamut from closed bins to pit composting to open bins, tumblers, piling, and vermicomposting from Fine Gardening.  


Plant Native and Florida-Friendly

This is a called a lawn, but it is really a dead zone that requires herbicides to kill weeds, insecticides to kill lawn pests, and chemical fertilizers to give it that nice green color.  It also requires lots of irrigation in the form of our drinking water.  And let’s not forget the polluting power of lawn equipment required to keep this dead zone tidy looking.  This no longer makes sense in a world where fish are dying by the thousands. 


This lovely native groundcover is known variously as Fogfruit, or Frogfruit, or Turkey tangle or Creeping Charlie. It doesn’t require any chemicals to maintain it, it provides nectar for hungry bees and butterflies, and it feeds the caterpillars of several butterfly species.  For ideas about other native plants you can use in place of sod, you can search the Florida Native Plant Society website or that of the Institute for Regional Conservation’s Natives for your Neighborhood, narrowing your search down by site conditions and other considerations.  You will lower your carbon footprint and reduce the amount of chemical contamination in our aquifer and Biscayne Bay.


Marjory Stoneman Douglas was ahead of her time. Let’s not be behind ours. Photo taken at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Nature Center on Key Biscayne.
We determine the world our children inherit with the actions we take today.

8 thoughts on “What the Fish Happened….?

  1. Jeff Reply

    People that are in septic tanks constantly are put to blaim. We all that have them either have been rsised or are not leaking. Most septic systems are set back 30 ft from canals if there even in there back yard. It’s the politicans that get paid by lobbyists from big sugar to allow the run off from lake okeechobee and big sugar that flows down canal c8. Right from the lake area to wide open biscayne bay. Along with the core of engineering that make everything look good on paper but don’t solve the issue. Look what they did to tamiami trail,now there tring to figure how to make it work like ut was supposed to. Again there planning to rais the trail and build even more there. When will it all stop Marjorie is no longer here to fight for us. Yes storm sewers go directly into the bay,but that is a major system to overhaul,like the sewer system that breakdown and leak into the bay and canal.

    1. Mary Benton Reply

      Marjory isn’t with us, sadly, but her legacy, her persistence, and her vision lives on as inspiration, and we must fight for ourselves. Thanks for reading.

  2. Denise E Aloise Reply

    Excellent article. We can each do something to improve the environment for our planet, us, and generations to come. It is our responsibility. I do not know the author of this wisdom, but it is so applicable, “We Do Not Inherit the Earth from Our Ancestors; We Borrow It from Our Children.” We must be grateful, and, treat it with love and respect.

    1. Mary Benton Reply

      Thank you for reading, Denise, and for understanding what is at stake.

  3. Monica Gross Reply

    Beautiful story, Mary. I love writing up and shooting photography. If you want me to help with a story occasionally, please let me know.


    1. Mary Benton Reply

      I’m so glad you enjoyed this, Monica. I would love to collaborate with you sometime! Love, Mary

  4. Susan Howell Reply

    Mary and Liangy this article is so needed. It is up to each one of us to make a personal commitment to help our planet. My garden is thriving- it is a sanctuary for birds, bees, butterflies, ladybugs, and dragonflies. I plant mostly native plants, do not use any chemicals in my garden, and compost my kitchen scraps. My compost pile is now full of worms (such a healthy sign) and I use the compost as fertilizer for my plants. It is simple and a win/win for the planet and my personal joy:) We are all in this together. Biscayne Bay is Miami’s jewel we must protect it and all the life that lives in and around it.

    1. Mary Benton Reply

      Yes, Susan, absolutely: we need to come together to create the future our children and our planet deserve, starting in our own gardens.

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