Saturday, November 2, 2013

Florida's Dirty Little Secret, Part 4

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

Tourists watch dolphins hunting fish in San Carlos Bay.
The boatful of tourists watched with sheer glee as a pod of bottlenose dolphins frolicked along the edges of the Intercoastal Waterway. The big mammals put on quite a show, breaching regularly, sometimes completely coming out of the dark, tainted water of San Carlos Bay. 

Jim Martin, a lifelong conservationists, and the conservation officer for Pure Fishing, joined me and a handful of folks on the dolphin-watching tour, an offering given to attendees at the American Sportfishing Association Summit, conducted in October on shores of the bay.

Martin, who speaks passionately about issues impacting the environment--particularly as those issues impact fishing opportunity--remarked on the color of the water, and noted that, if something isn't done to remedy the frequent influx of untreated fresh water from Lake Okeechobee, this bay and others like around south Florida could be in real trouble.

"People ask me all the time how much this bay can handle," he said. "The answer is, how tightly can you stretch a rubber band? Eventually, it's going to break."

Later that week, I listened to Martin give an empassioned plea to members of the sporting media gathered at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership Saltwater Conservation Summit in Key Largo.

"The people in D.C. don't understand the issues facing our estuaries, and because of that, they don't care," he said. Sportsmen, he continued, need to demand appropriate conservation funding from the government to address the issues facing Florida's estuaries, and vital inshore habitats all along America's coastlines, simply because they have an economic impact on local regional economies that cannot be ignored. 

As Martin put it, sportsmen and women need to get involved and let the decision-makers in D.C. know that they can trash our habitat and our opportunity "over our dead bodies."

Drastic? Maybe on the surface. But as I and a host of other members of the press learned in October in south Florida, the situation is quite dire. The issue at hand--releases of untreated "fresh" water from Lake Okeechobee tainting coastal estuaries in the Caloosahatchee, Indian and St. Lucie river drainages--is truly frightening. This year alone almost 800 endangered Florida manatees have died in the polluted estuaries, likely due to the die-off of sea grass caused by the polluted discharges. Manatees have taken to eating toxic algae instead of their traditional foods. Of course there will be repercussions.

The underappreciated ladyfish is one of many inshore fish that depend on
healthy estuaries. 
These estuaries are also vital nurseries for redfish, snook, tarpon, sea trout, jack crevailles, ladyfish and other prized gamefish that inshore anglers target. And, according to the ASA, inshore fishing in the fastest-growing segment within fishing, in general. In Florida alone, more than 3 million anglers ply the state's waters, and the vast majority of them, at one time or another, chase saltwater fish in the estuaries and from the beaches. 

In 2011, according to an ASA study, fishing had an economic impact of more than $8 billion on the state's economy, and it was responsible for about $1.2. billion in state, local and federal tax receipts. In comparison, the industry that benefits most from the water releases into the estuaries--Big Sugar--contributes about $2 billion to the state economy. 

As I said in a previous installment in this series. It's a no-brainer. It's not even close.

But the challenge isn't so much proving that recreation fishing deserves a more prominent seat at the table. Instead, it's finding a way to play the game by a set of rules we likely need more help with. While Big Sugar contributes millions every year to political action committees and candidates--and spends millions more lobbying for the status quo--the recreational fishing industry does precious little

 Martin, who represents the interests of Pure Fishing, the world's largest manufacturer of fishing gear and equipment and the company behind brands like Abu Garcia, Berkely, Pflueger, Penn and Shakespeare (add in the recent purchase of Hardy-Greys, and the company now has a significant footprint in the fly fishing world, too), fully understands the dynamic that exists between intact habitat and quality fishing opportunity.

"We make Gulp," he said. "Of course we want healthy fisheries."

Credit the ASA with being very active in conservation issues--the organization does its share of outreach to Congress, and it, like Martin, understands that habitat and opportunity are intrinsically linked. But there's just no money--at least no money spent--on behalf of the industry to "play the game" according the rules by which giant lobbies like Big Sugar play.

In short, if Big Sugar continues to buy the votes of politicians and spend millions lobbying in D.C., while the ASA and other organizations simply sign letters and shout into the vacuum about the injustice of it all, we're lost. 

Spanish mackerel.
Yes, the system is failing us. As anglers, it's clear that we have the numbers. We have the data. We have the impact. But, unless we start putting the money where our mouths are, Big Sugar, Big Oil, mining, ethanol, coal--the industries that quietly spend money in D.C and in congressional districts from coast to coast to protect their fiefdoms--we're going to lose our resources, both fresh and salty.

Our fishing will suffer. So, too, will the opportunities of coming generations, who may never know the joy of catching a snook on a fly in the shadow of the mangroves, or watching as a lightning-fast Spanish mackerel snares a clouser on the rush of an incoming tide. 

Habitat. Opportunity. Money. It really is that simple. 

In order to win under these rules, we have to play the game.


  1. Chris, A truly excellent series! Thanks for taking the time to dig deep and put the challenges out there. The more these issues are communicated the better the chance we have to put the political pressure on the policy makers to make some changes. I gave it some exposure on Dispatches,