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Biscayne Bay is a dynamic and diverse marine ecosystem with mangrove shorelines, a shallow bay, developed and undeveloped islands, and living coral reefs. It is a shallow inlet of the Atlantic Ocean along southeastern Florida that provides a home for all kinds of sea life such as: pink shrimp, stone crabs, seagrasses, manatees, dolphins and an amazing variety of wading birds.
The Bay, which is about 40 miles (64 km) long and 2-10 miles (3-16 km) wide, forms a part of the Atlantic Intercoastal Waterway. It connects with the ocean mainly through Safety Valve Entrance and with Florida Bay (in the south) through a series of sounds.
Historically, the shoreline of Biscayne Bay was lined with a thick green forest of mangroves. These trees, with their complex system of prop roots, help stabilize the shoreline and provide shelter for animals, birds and marine life. Their leaves become a vital part of the food chain when they fall into the water.
Many mangrove forests have been lost to development. Remaining mangrove resources are protected from destruction.
The lush seagrass beds found throughout Biscayne Bay form another major part of the food chain. The Florida spiny lobster depends on this rich food chain and the Bay has been designated a sanctuary where the lobsters are protected year-round. Shrimp, fish, sea turtles, and manatees also utilize these productive underwater pastures.
On the eastern edge of Biscayne Bay are the northernmost Florida Keys. These stunning emerald islands, fringed with mangroves, contain tropical hardwood forests in their interiors. The establishment of the Biscayne National Park in 1968 protects these islands from urban development, allowing them to remain a reminder of the area’s past.
On the Atlantic side of the islands outside the Bay lie the most diverse and beautiful of the underwater communities: the coral reefs. The reefs support a kaleidoscope of life. Fish, plants, and other animals abound in a variety of colors. However, as human impacts increase, damage to the reefs has had nearly irreparable effects.
Miami-Dade County's artificial reef program has played a major role in protecting and enhancing coral reefs. Artificial reefs create an environment in which marine life can flourish while simultaneously reducing the pressures of human contact on naturally occurring reefs.
Not unlike most ecosystems in Florida, Biscayne Bay has undergone a significant change over time due to tourism, land development and commerce. Since 1890, over 20 percent of the North Bay area was filled and replaced by 30 islands and 6 causeways. The Miami River and North Bay canals were dredged in order to improve navigation.
Unchecked urban development along the North Bay resulted in the once clear and shallow Bay waters transforming into a deep, murky, channeled water body with concrete shores. The degradation of the Bay's water quality and the disruption of the natural bay bottom destroyed the seagrass habitat that supported hundreds of fish and invertebrate species.
Early recognition of the impact human induced changes brought to the Biscayne Bay environment led to the establishment of the Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve by the State of Florida and Miami-Dade County government declared the Bay an "Aquatic Park" in 1974.
In 1981, the Biscayne Bay Management Committee was created to counteract the substantial loss of Bay resources. The Committee’s goal was to oversee restoration projects that provided aesthetic, recreational and ecological value to the Bay.
The restoration plan succeeded in returning the Bay to a more ecologically stable condition. Today, the responsibilities of overseeing the enhancement and protection of Biscayne Bay are divided among several of the County’s departments with oversight of all Bay projects provided by Environmental Resources Management.
Presently there are programs in place to protect Bay resources from industrial contaminants, specifically from marinas and other water-dependent activities, inland industrial sites and non-point-source pollution. Environmental Resources Management's Restoration and Enhancement Section manages a Biscayne Bay restoration program.
The County focuses its environmental protection education efforts on the Bay during the annual Baynanza festival, which includes a shoreline cleanup that draws thousands of community volunteers.
In addition to its role as a now thriving ecosystem, Biscayne Bay is an aquatic playground and educational opportunity for Miami-Dade County's residents and visitors. The Bay is home to a multitude of marinas, sailing clubs, dive outfits, wind surfers, kayakers, canoeists, fishermen, and many other outdoor enthusiasts.
So visit a Bay-area park, explore an island, check out an artificial reef; it’s there for everyone to share and enjoy. However, remember that we too are part of this natural system, and each of us has an important role to play in its preservation.
Learn more about Baynanza and the Biscayne Bay Cleanup Day on April 16.
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