Once overflowing with life, as evidenced by Captain Bill Gray’s catch, seen here in 1949, Miami’s waters deserve our best.
Captain Bill Gray displays some of the abundant marine life he caught in the waters off of Miami’s Dinner Key, in 1949.
From the beginning, Miami was about the water. The 2,000-year-old Native American Miami Circle, at the foot of Icon Brickell, was laced with the remains of sharks, Caribbean monk seals, and sea turtles when it was discovered in 1998. The sea made Miami and its beaches a destination at the end of the 19th century, which led to today, where South Floridians pay some of the highest square-footage rates in the world for blue (not brown) ocean views.
In this photo, taken at Dinner Key on April 18, 1949, Captain Bill Gray unloads Biscayne Bay’s bounty onto the deck of his boat. Gray made a name for himself as a treasure hunter of sorts, catching the then-abounding sea life of Miami’s waters, which would eventually lead him to become the Miami Seaquarium’s director of collections. He even once captured an albino porpoise that became a key attraction.
Times have changed and so has the ocean. Captive cetaceans are now controversial, climate change is upon us, and the Bay doesn’t have nearly the bounty it once did. “The average black grouper in the ’50s was probably about 50 pounds,” says Dr. Jerald Ault, who studies fish at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. “Today that same fish is probably eight pounds. [Models indicate] the present spawning stock is 1 percent of its historical abundance.” Unbridled 20th-century real estate destroyed habitats that would otherwise be home to shrimp and fish, on up the food chain to dolphins. As recently as 2013, the sewage system was in such disarray that the federal government had to file suit against the city.
Yet nature is resilient if you give her half a chance. Manatees—prop scars and all—still feed here, and swordfish, once decimated by long-lining off our beaches in the ’80s, have made a comeback via regulations. Nature—the azure water from which bathers emerge in barely there bikinis, the clean snapper we dig into at Scarpetta and Seagrape—is why Miami is so special. To mark this month’s Earth Day, how about giving her a whole chance?
PHOTOGRAPHY BY STATE ARCHIVES OF FLORIDA, FLORIDA MEMORY