What’s killing sawfish in the Lower Keys?

Smalltooth sawfish, photo via the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

You want more proof Florida’s waters are screwed up?

Some 17 endangered sawfish have turned up dead in the backcountry waters of the Lower Keys in recent months and no one knows what’s killing them. More than a dozen other species of fish have been seen behaving strangely — whirling, spinning and swimming upside down.

Dr. Mike Parsons, Director of The Water School at Florida Gulf Coast University, told WINK News that typically only four or five sawfish are reported dead per year throughout Florida. “The fact that so many different fish are being affected suggests it might be something in the water,” Parsons told WINK.

Some experts initially thought the phenomenon had something to do with the extreme high water temperatures in the Keys last summer. But no one’s sure.

The only real clue so far: elevated levels of ciguatera, a single-cell algae that grows naturally on reefs. Fish can safely eat it, though people who eat the fish can become sick. But scientists are now wondering if — or why — the naturally occurring toxin might suddenly be poisoning fish.

Local conservation groups began getting reports of dead fish or strange behavior in November; most were seen between Bow Channel, near Sugarloaf Key, south to Key West, according to WLRN News.

In addition to sawfish, the sick or dead fish include tarpon, permit, goliath grouper and stingray, even smaller needlefish and sardines, according to WLRN.

We’ll keep you posted on this. But while we don’t know the specific culprit, in a broader sense we know exactly why this is happening: It’s the result of the systemic pollution and mismanagement of our waterways. Clean water still doesn’t flow south in sufficient quantities; special interests like Big Sugar still call the shots; and all the pumps and pipes of new infrastructure projects like the EAA Reservoir won’t come online for years if not decades.

What will be left of Florida Bay by then?