Florida’s serene healthy oceans and coastal waters are a part of its identity as a state. Not only do Floridians cherish these waters and call them home, but many tourists flock to them which drives our statewide economy. This is why protecting them is incredibly important from both perspectives. Thankfully, Florida has an organization that’s devoted to doing so. Founded in Washington D.C. in 1972, the Ocean Conservancy is the nation’s oldest nonprofit organization dedicated exclusively to marine conservation. With offices around the globe, they work at the nexus of science and policy to achieve evidence-based outcomes for the greatest challenges facing the world’s oceans.
Jon Paul Brooker is the Director of Conservation for the Florida branch of the Ocean Conservancy. Anything impacting Florida’s oceans and coasts is something the Conservancy works on. “We work on marine debris and plastic, we also work on wildlife protection and fishery issues,” said Brooker. Brooker spoke at the Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation Corridor Connect Summit in September where he drove home the importance of understanding water connectivity.
“All of Florida’s water is interconnected and we sit on a limestone foundation that’s porous and shot through with water, our aquifer bubbles water up through our springs and out through our rivers and lakes and all the way out to the coast and out onto the coral reef tract,” said Brooker.
This understanding of connectivity is crucial to understanding water quality issues in our state. This ultimately means that if there is something wrong with our water upstream there’s going to be issues with our downstream coastal waters as well.
Brooker shared some of the major issues affecting Florida. One of these is the loss of seagrass due to harmful algal blooms in our waterways like the Indian River Lagoon. “Over the last two years, we’ve seen an unusual mortality event for manatees, and we’ve lost more than 25% of the overall population due to starvation,” said Brooker. He says the Conservancy is working to protect manatees by improving water quality through enforcing basin management action plans and strengthening nutrient input regulations. “We need to stop putting so many nutrients into our coastal waters that are fueling these harmful algal events and causing such rampant devastation to our coastal wildlife,” said Brooker.
The Conservancy is also working diligently with lawmakers in Tallahassee to bring action to rid plastic and marine debris from our oceans and coastal waterways. “We’re doing everything we can to prevent plastics from ending up on our beaches and in our waters by developing new regulations and policies at a local level and at the state level,” said Brooker. When asked what issue needs the most attention, Brooker said apart from addressing water quality, we need to work to prevent sea level rise. Florida’s sea levels are rising, and Oceanographer William Sweet says if it goes unchecked by the year 2100 more than 98% of buildings in Miami Beach City will be below sea level, with a mild hurricane having the ability to flood the city in its entirety. Sea level rise will impact our coastal habitats like humans, beaches, swamps, and water supplies. “Our whole coastal way of life is at risk because of these rising seas,” said Brooker.
The health of Florida’s oceans and coastal waters is critical to Florida’s Wildlife Corridor. Brooker says the achievements of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation inspire him in his own work with the Ocean Conservancy.
“The Florida Wildlife Corridor is the gold standard in Florida for bringing diverse stakeholders to the table to hear about the importance of conservation and why we need to act to save Florida’s environment,” said Brooker.
Brooker said a lot of his work is legislative in nature and based on outreach and education to the public. “We’ve got the legislative session coming up in Tallahassee in January and we’ll be working tooth and nail with legislators to achieve meaningful gains for Florida’s ocean environment,” said Brooker. The Conservancy has multiple outreach programs they use to educate the public. For example, they have partnered with universities to develop programs for education on marine conservation issues. Brooker says they also prioritize storytelling as a method of outreach and work do things such as creating documentaries to spread their message. He says it’s important for the Conservancy to tell the story of why protecting Florida’s water resources is vital.
“Partnering with the Florida Wildlife Corridor has been a really good opportunity to help tell that story and to show the importance of Florida water, and we’re really delighted for that partnership,” said Brooker. Although the issues facing Florida’s oceans and coastal waters may seem dire, Brooker remains optimistic about reversing and preventing them. “I’ve seen the gains that we can make if we actually do intervene and I’m deeply optimistic that we can head off the worst of the damage and that we can make Florida a beautiful place forever,” said Brooker. Helping protect these waters requires action from everyone, not just folks like Brooker. He says you can do your part by deciding to stop the use of single-use plastic items, making wise decisions about which fish you consume, and becoming an advocate for Florida.
“Whether you’re a sixth-generation Floridian like I am, or you just moved here yesterday, you need to be an advocate for Florida coastal resources and that means arguing for clean water all the time,” said Brooker.
If you’d like to learn more about the Ocean Conservancy and the work they’re doing, go to: https://oceanconservancy.org.