Dams in Everglades could improve regional ecosystem

A floating dock has been built at the Homestead Canal Dam near Cape Sable, where anglers can tie up powerboats and paddle into the park’s no-motor zone.
A floating dock has been built at the Homestead Canal Dam near Cape Sable, where anglers can tie up powerboats and paddle into the park’s no-motor zone. Miami Herald Staff

It had been several years since Islamorada light-tackle guide captain Paul Hunt had explored the sparsely traveled no-motor zones of Everglades National Park near Flamingo. So he was pleasantly surprised when he arrived last week aboard his 22-foot Angler bay boat at the Homestead Canal Dam separating Florida Bay from the Cape Sable region’s vast interior marsh.

Hunt found a floating dock to tie up his boat and a small launch ramp for his 16-foot kayak.

“They made this really nice,” he said.

The dam and its improvements were built in 2011 — along with the nearby East Cape Extension Canal Dam — with the aim of reducing saltwater intrusion from canals dug early in the 20th century and restoring the freshwater and brackish marshes to a more natural state.

But adding those structures isn’t enough to shore up the regional ecosystem, so park officials are proposing four more dam projects at House Ditch, Slagle Ditch, Raulerson Canal and East Side Creek. The park is asking for public input as planners prepare an environmental assessment of several alternatives.

Tylan Dean, the park’s biological resources branch chief, said there always has been some saltwater influence inland from Florida Bay but the canals made things worse, eroding shorelines and degrading the habitat of birds, fish and other wildlife. The dams, he said, could make things better.

“By limiting the amount of saltwater flow, we expect some of the prey fish to do better,” Dean said. “When you get more of the little fish, often you get more bigger fish that come to prey on them. Some species might be less common. I don’t think there are any species that would disappear completely.”

Dean said he would like to hear from anglers about their experiences and concerns. He also has reached out to NOAA Fisheries because endangered smalltooth sawfish reproduce in the Cape Sable area during the spring.

Amid weak tidal flow, Hunt and a companion paddled easily inland from the Homestead Canal Dam last week and entered a primitive wonderland. A dozen American crocodiles sunbathed on a mud flat as juvenile tarpon rolled nearby. Hunt’s companion caught and released a jack crevalle using a Hank Brown jig head with a Saltwater Assassin tail but couldn’t entice the tarpon to bite.

The pair headed into a shallow lake surrounded by mangroves and dotted with deadfalls where they jumped and lost a snook and practically ran over several more laid-up snook warming themselves on the mud flats following several days of cold fronts. All around the paddlers, mullet mudded and jumped and clouds of small minnows darted about. But no big fish chased the bait. Hunt and his passenger paddled for a couple of miles then headed back toward the dam, passing a large bull shark and releasing another jack. At the dam, Hunt’s companion caught and released a sheepshead after tipping the jig with shrimp. They hadn’t seen another boat all day.

Dean said the dam projects might provide some fishing benefits to Florida Bay by limiting the nutrients that spill out of the canals causing fish-killing algae blooms. Water clarity, he said, might improve with less sediment flowing into the bay.

Hunt wondered what Cape Sable’s interior marshes might look like years from now with dams built and less saltwater flowing in.

“Once it’s complete, it might change to different species,” he said. “A hundred years ago, who knows what it was like up there? Maybe they were catching bass.”

The comment period for Cape Sable Dams Restoration Phase II ends Sunday. Go to www.parkplanning.nps.gov and select “Everglades NP,” then “Cape Sable Dams-Phase II,” and “open for public comment.”

▪ If you would like to book an Everglades fishing charter with captain Paul Hunt, call 305-393-2495.