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Ecosystem history of southern and central Biscayne Bay: Summary report on sediment core analyses

January 1, 2003

During the last century, the environs of Biscayne Bay have been greatly affected by anthropogenic alteration through urbanization of the Miami/Dade County area. The sources, timing, delivery, and quality of freshwater flow into the Bay have been changed by construction of a complex canal system that controls movement of water throughout south Florida. Changes in shoreline and sub-aquatic vegetation and marine organisms have been observed and changes in water delivery are believed to be the cause.

Current restoration goals are attempting to restore natural flow of fresh water into Biscayne and Florida Bays and to restore the natural fauna and flora, but first we need to determine pre-alteration baseline conditions in order to establish targets and performance measures for restoration. This research is part of an ongoing study designed to address the needs of the Biscayne Bay Coastal Wetlands Project (BBCW) of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP).

By establishing the natural patterns of temporal change in salinity, water quality, vegetation, and benthic fauna in Biscayne Bay and the nearby wetlands over the last 100- 500 years the USGS, in collaboration with our partners, will provide the data necessary to set realistic targets to achieve the BBCW Project goals.

Six cores from three sites in Biscayne Bay were collected in April 2002 for multidisciplinary multi-proxy analyses. This report details the results of these analyses and compares the 2002 cores to cores collected in 1997. The following are our significant findings to date:

• The salinity of central Biscayne Bay has become increasingly marine and increasingly stable over the last 100 years.

o At No Name Bank, prior to approximately 1915, the inter-decadal and decadal salinity fluctuations appear to have been greater than after 1915 when salinities stabilized at that site.

o Continental shelf/open marine influence on the sites has increased during the 20th century.

o There is no indication of inter-decadal salinity extremes or periods of hypersalinity.

o Freshwater and mesohaline salinities have had a minor influence on No Name bank throughout the time of deposition. At Featherbed Bank, the influence is reduced to mesohaline salinities.

• Card Bank has experienced relatively large swings in salinity over multi-decadal and centennial timescales, compared to central Biscayne Bay, but marine influence at the site has increased over the last century.

• Indications of regional scale patterns have been found, especially in the shell chemistry data and the pollen assemblages. These regional patterns indicate that the changes are not site specific and may not be limited to Biscayne Bay. Sub-aquatic vegetation has undergone bay-wide patterns of change over the last 200-500 years, which includes expansion prior to 1900 and declines during the last century in central Biscayne Bay.

o Thalassia appears to have increased at all three core sites sometime between 1550 and 1750 AD.

o A decline in Thalassia appears to have occurred after 1950 at No Name Bank and slightly earlier in the 20th century at Featherbed Bank.

o Card Bank does not appear to have experienced any declines in vegetation on an inter-decadal scale during the 20th century.

• Molluscan faunal abundance and diversity have undergone significant changes in central Biscayne Bay.

• Indicators of increased organic-rich sediments at No Name occur between 1869 to 1888 and between the 1930’s to 1975. These changes may correlate to human activities (settlement, population growth).

These findings represent a first step towards the project’s goal to reconstruct the history of Biscayne Bay and they provide us with a working model to be tested at other sites. It is clear from our findings that Biscayne Bay has been a dynamic environment over the last 500 years, with natural changes occurring in salinity and benthic habitats. However, several significant changes have occurred in the 20th century: 1) increased stabilization of marine salinities; 2) declines in seagrass in central Biscayne Bay; 3) dramatic changes in molluscan abundance and diversity in central Biscayne Bay. The question remains - how do we better differentiate natural cycles of change from anthropogenic change within these observed trends?

The preliminary implications from our research are that changes in salinity and benthic habitats have occurred naturally in Biscayne Bay on inter-decadal to centennial scales, perhaps due to climatic changes, changes in sea level, bank migrations, or a combination of factors. However, further work needs to be done to determine which components of change in the 20th century are human-induced and which are natural. By examining the historical records preserved in the sediments of Biscayne Bay, we can provide restoration trust agencies with the information necessary to set realistic targets and performance measures for Biscayne Bay.

Publication Year 2003
Title Ecosystem history of southern and central Biscayne Bay: Summary report on sediment core analyses
DOI 10.3133/ofr03375
Authors G. Lynn Wingard, Thomas M. Cronin, G. S. Dwyer, S. E. Ishman, D. A. Willard, C. W. Holmes, C.E. Bernhardt, C.P. Williams, M. E. Marot, J.B. Murray, R.G. Stamm, J.H. Murray, C. Budet
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Open-File Report
Series Number 2003-375
Index ID ofr03375
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Eastern Geology and Paleoclimate Science Center; Florence Bascom Geoscience Center