Thursday, October 31, 2013

Florida's Dirty Little Secret: Part Three

This is the third in a series of posts focusing on the ecological issues facing the coastal estuaries of southern Florida. Read Part One here, and Part Two here

A spotted sea trout breaks up a slow day of fishing in San Carlos Bay. The
bay is influenced by excess water discharges from Lake Okeechobee,
which turn the water brown and add pollutants to the estuary.
It's fashionable, among sportsmen and women, to point fingers at others when it becomes obvious that our fishing and hunting are suffering thanks to degraded waters or lands. Certainly, it's true that some who use our resources leave them in a state that makes our pastimes less productive, and it's perfectly all right to identify the causes of the problems that trash fish and game habitat and hinder our opportunity.

But unless we act, we're just a bunch of whiners. It's a tough pill to swallow, but it's true. Complaining about a problem without offering a solution just makes for shrill rhetoric. It's unproductive, to be sure. For more, see: Congress, United States. 

I have a good friend who once explained to me how, traditionally, sportsmen engaged in politics, particularly when it came to natural resources issues that impacted their opportunities afield.

"If one day, you told a bunch of hunters that they had to wake up the next morning, report to the firing squad and be executed, they'd bitch and moan all night long," he said to me. "Then, the next morning, they'd dutifully report, and stand stoically in front of the firing squad to be shot dead."

In south Florida, where the Indian, St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee river estuaries are being pushed to their ecological limits, largely by the polluted discharges from an overtaxed Lake Okeechobee, and where, at the same time, the Everglades are literally dying of thirst, the folks who are arguably the most affected need to quit the whining and start acting.

The unnatural discharges operated by a maze of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers locks and levees are so polluted with agricultural runoff from south Florida's agricultural district (largely the cane fields grown by Big Sugar) that, once they make their way into the coastal estuaries, they turn the normally emerald green water into fetid bays and dark brown lagoons. The influx of untreated "fresh" water kills seagrass and other native vegetation and likely contributes significantly to unnatural algae blooms, toxic red tides and the general malaise associated with polluted water.

Just this year, 769 endangered Florida manatees have died in these estuaries.

Bottlenose dolphins hunt the artificially murky waters of the
Caloosahatchee River estuary recently. The estuary is polluted every
summer by overflowing water from Lake Okeechobee that's untreated and
directed into the river by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Keep in mind that all of these estuaries are the nurseries for some of the most-prized gamefish in the country--redfish, snook, tarpon, sea trout, and the like. These fish are targeted by millions of anglers every single year, and they are the source of billions in retail spending and tax revenues for the region.

According to the American Sportfishing Association, retail sales and the "ripple effect" of that cash influx total $8.6 billion in Florida alone. Recreational fishing pays over $2.7 billion in wages annually ... in Florida alone. How many jobs does that account for? More than 80,000. Tax revenues for Florida and the federal government? About $1.2 billion.

Let's compare that to the overall economic impact of Big Sugar in the state of Florida.

According to a University of Florida study updated in 2002, Big Sugar's cash receipts exceeded $800 million a year through the 1990s and into the early part of the last decade in Florida alone.

"When the multiplier effect is taken into account, the Florida raw sugar industry generates gross sales of over $2 billion in the state and creates several thousand full-time equivalent jobs in Florida," the report reads.

The American Sugar Alliance doesn't break the numbers down by state--at least not publicly. But, according to its figures, eight refineries and 22 mills in the four states that grow sugar cane (Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana and Texas) provide 42,000 full-time and indirect jobs. Remember, those employment figures are spread over four states. 

So how on earth does Big Sugar protect its little fiefdom in Florida, especially when it's clear as the water should be off the coast of Sanibel Island that sportfishing in Florida is much more valuable--it's not even close--than sugar production?

Big Sugar spends a fortune lobbying in D.C. and Tallahassee, and it doles out political contributions to PACs and individual candidates like saltwater taffy on Halloween. 

For instance, American Crystal Sugar, one of two Big Sugar companies in south Florida, spent $2.3 million lobbying Congress and the Florida Legislature in 2011 and 2012, and during the 2012 election cycle, the company reported campaign contributions to PACs and candidates totaling $2.2 million. 

U.S. Sugar, a smaller company but one of significance in the region, spent almost $400,000 on lobbying in 2011 and 2012, and contributed more than $700,000 to PACs and candidates.

All to protect the status quo and keep those ill-conceived locks and levees operating. Not only does this network of waterways keep the vast cane fields from flooding during the summer rainy season and irrigated during the winter dry season, it contributes to a situation that keeps about two-thirds of the natural water flows from entering the Florida Everglades (the Tamiami Trail does a number on the 'glades, as well, but at least there's a plan in the works to help alleviate this problem). 

What does the sportfishing lobby spend on this issue? How much cash have we coughed up to fix this fixable tragedy and protect south Florida's irreplaceable estuaries? How much cheddar is our industry spending to protect the habitat and the opportunity for the 3.1 million anglers who plied Florida waters in 2011 (numbers provided by a recent proprietary study done by the American Sportfishing Association)? 

According to an search, the American Sportfishing Association raised $13,000 during the 2012 election cycle. And it spent $9,000 of it. How much of that was spent in Florida? A whopping $1,000 was given to U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, a Republican from Pensacola. 

To be clear, this is not a criticism of the ASA or of sportfishers in general. Consider it, instead, a wake-up call. We can bitch and moan until the sun comes up about this and a host of other ecological disasters in waiting, but until we start playing the game the way the slick, monied folks at Big Sugar play the game, there's no incentive on the part of Florida's state or federal elected officials to change one damn thing. There's no incentive to treat polluted water. No incentive to filter much needed water through the Everglades, as nature intended, and away from our fragile estuaries that are literally on the brink. No incentive to protect the places that make our fishing happen. 

In other words, we might as well go ahead and stand in front of the firing squad. 

Next: How powerful can we be? Is there good news?

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