THE LOOMING DEATH OF OUR COASTAL FISHERIES

In case you missed it, here it is. A clear and passionate explanation of not only what’s happening in Florida but all of our coastal fisheries. Rise up fly people, and force our politicians to end the bullshit.

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SOUTHERN CULTURE ON THE FLY
WINTER 2016: ISSUE no.18
THE LOOMING DEATH OF OUR COASTAL FISHERIES
By Joe Murray

Our coastal fisheries are getting fucked because of pathetically poor habitat and water management, and fly anglers (hell, anglers in general) aren’t doing shit about it.

First, let’s do the historical baseline test. Let’s choose 60 years ago, if for no other reasode429092f4f77f13b58bf67e78ade813-1.jpgn than some of the people reading this will have fishing memories from back then, and can attest to the next statement: How is our coastal fishing now compared to then? Almost across the board, a mere shadow of what it once was. I have yet to speak with an older angler who has told me that fishing now is as good or better than back then – and “back then” could be 30 years, not 60. If we’re talking about evaluating the state of our fisheries, we don’t want to just look at the past five or 10 years — we need a bigger picture. And that bigger picture looks pretty damn sad. It sure as hell isn’t something you’d hang on the wall of the man room.

Sure, there are spots here and there where a fishery is pretty good, but even these spots tend to be hot and cold, anglers often having to work harder than they used to for good fishing. And once again the old timers tell stories that make a big day today pale in comparison.

So compared to 60 years ago, our fisheries aren’t doing well. Why are anglers okay with this? Are they so consumed by denial that they accept it as the new normal and just fish harder, or travel to find good fishing? I wonder how much of the fishing travel outfitter business in recent years is the result of anglers giving up on their home waters and traveling to scratch the itch? I bet it’s a lot. And that’s classic avoidance behavior. Plus, this only works if you have the money to do it. Everyone else is screwed.

To those who are reading this and think that fishing today is just as good as it’s ever been, you need to see a shrink, because you’re in a majorly altered state of reality.  Or you’re too young to know any better. The data say the fisheries are in decline, as do the accounts of those who’ve been doing this for a while.

So what’s the source of the ills that have befallen our coastal fisheries? Bad resource management. For most coastal recreational fisheries (there are a few exceptions), I don’t think it’s bad management, it’s bad resource management. Florida is a great example. By and large, the recreational fisheries are well managed. Size limits, seasons, bag limits are all based on best available science and are doing what they’re supposed to do.

In glaring contrast, the state can’t have its head much farther up its ass when it comes to habitat and water management. Due to ast errors in judgment, Florida has already lost somewhere around 50% of its mangroves. Since a lot of recreational fish species rely on mangroves, that’s a problem. Now, when the state reviews an application for clearing mangroves for development (yes, this still happens), it reviews the application as if there are just as many mangroves as there ever were, not as part of a larger, cumulative loss of habitat. This generally leads to the permit being approved at the expense of the fisheries.

 

And the outlook for salt marshes is no better.

As if to underscore his inability to grasp basic economics, Florida Governor Rick Scott recently declared that state parks and other state-owned lands had to prove their economic worth and pay for themselves. What he fails to grasp is that in large part it is these public lands that are the factory that produces the recreational fisheries that are worth somewhere between $5 billion and $8 billion annually to the state’s coffers. His shortsighted “management” is resulting in reduced habitat and fishery health that will be felt by Florida for generations to come. Saddest of all, this guy is now in his second term.

But that’s nothing compared to the mismanagement of the water. Decades ago, folks had the bright idea to drain the Everglades for development and farmland. Now the southern half of Florida is crisscrossed with varicose veins of water canals, and many other watersheds in the state were similarly violated. Now there are few places where the freshwater that flows into the estuaries follows its historical path, not to mention all of the excess nutrients and pollutants that are in that water.

Not enough freshwater is getting from the Everglades into large areas of Florida Bay. This is causing the salinity (salt content) of the water in Florida Bay to get so high that it’s killing seagrass and fish. he typical salinity of ocean water is 35 parts per thousand. At one point this summer, the salinity in parts of Florida Bay was 65 parts per thousand. This has been killing toadfish and pinfish, which are virtually indestructible. The low amount of rainfall this year in the Everglades is certainly exacerbating the situation, but the real cause of the problem is diversion of the freshwater flows for “water management” (and you thought California was the only state with bad water management practices).

In contrast to too little freshwater, other parts of Florida get way too much. Two rivers connect Lake Okeechobee to Florida’s coasts. When the water level gets too high in the lake, the Army Corps of Engineers opens the locks that keep the freshwater in the lake, and it pours out the Caloosahatchee River to Florida’s Gulf of Mexico coast, and the St. Lucie River to the Atlantic coast — billions and billions of gallons of freshwater. A few years ago, the plume of muddy, tannin-stained freshwater bellowing out of the Caloosahatchee River could be seen more than five miles offshore. No matter the tidal cycle, water flowed out of the river mouth top to bottom, 24 hours a day, for weeks. And in the St. Lucie River, not only did most of the oysters die due to the deluge, but people got rashes and got sick from being in the water.

You can imagine what this did to the fish and fishing.

How bad is the water in Lake Okeechobee? A few years ago during a drought, the water level in the lake became so low that large areas of the mucky bottom were exposed. Someone had the idea to dredge out some of the muck that had accumulated over the decades. But when they tested the muck, it came back as so contaminated that there was no place to put it other than a sealed landfill. It remains in the lake to this day.

Here’s another gem for you: The levels of mercury in freshwater fish in South Florida are so high that the state recommends that people do not eat freshwater fish. Period.

The frustration here is that Florida’s water is still being managed like it’s the 1950s. The world is different now than it was back then. We know more and we should know a lot better, but the old ways just won’t die.

One of the bullshit arguments you’ll hear over and over again is that this is competition for freshwater between agriculture and the fish. If agriculture used reasonable conservation measures with its water use practices, this wouldn’t be an issue.

A lot of the water management canals were built to move water – to prevent flooding in some areas, deliver water to others. Because these canals drain a lot of agricultural land and take runoff from urbanized areas, the water is full of all kinds of crap. At the top of the list for many is that the water contains too many nutrients. Too many nutrients entering coastal waters and estuaries cause plankton blooms, which kill seagrass, shellfish, and other organisms, which – you guessed it – greatly impacts the fisheries.

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For water management purposes, the entities in charge want long, straight, clean canals that can move a lot of water. So on a regular basis, these entities spray herbicides in the canals to get rid of plants like Hydrilla, which can clog the canals and water control structures and pumps. This, of course, not only introduces yet another pollutant into the water, but also puts the nutrients that had been soaked up by the plants right back into the water. This makes for a nasty nutrient soup heading straight for coastal waters.

A few locations in Florida and other states use barge-mounted, mower-like contraptions to remove Hydrilla. This seems like a decent alternative to pollutants, and it helps to remove the nutrients from the system.

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A massive plankton bloom driven by a long-term input of nutrients is to blame for the massive seagrass die-off in Florida’s Indian River Lagoon. The plankton bloom blocked sunlight from reaching the seagrass, and then the decomposition of the dead plankton and seagrass reduced oxygen in the water, which helped take out a lot more of the seagrass. This happened in 2010, and the recovery has been slow to say the least. Manatees, dolphins, and turtles are dying in high numbers, and fish have lesions. There hasn’t been a report of a decent shrimp run in years.

Some say that the 2010 event was the “perfect storm” caused in large part by the extreme freeze, to which I say bullshit. The Indian River Lagoon has been through freezes many times before, and never has such a die-off been documented. Some also say that 2010 was the death of the Indian River Lagoon, but the estuary has been dying the death of a thousand cuts for years. The 2010 event was just the accumulation of too many cuts — it had been coming for quite some time.

The Indian River Lagoon isn’t going to recover until something is done to fix the water. High-nutrient, polluted water can’t continue to be dumped into the lagoon on a daily basis.  It’s pretty simple.

The same can be said for Florida Bay and the Everglades. Until the water is fixed, the ecosystem – and the fisheries that depend on a healthy ecosystem – will continue to weaken and eventually totally collapse.

The Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers will continue to be wastelands until water flows out of Lake Okeechobee are controlled.

All of these problems are shitting on our fisheries. And until these problems are addressed, our fisheries will continue to decline. Here’s the scary part – ecosystem and fishery declines aren’t slow and gradual. They are punctuated by cliff edges where they take a huge drop all at once to a “new normal,” and to many this is an “oh shit” moment that’s too late.

If the changes in the coastal fisheries that have occurred over the past 20 years instead occurred over a few weeks, people would be going ape shit. The declines would be obvious, painful, criminal, even to those who don’t fish. Instead, the changes have occurred in increments — the infamous “death by a thousand cuts” – it’s death all the same. It’s just that saltwater anglers can’t get out of their own way to see the changes, instead grabbing ever more desperately for that “good day” of fishing, whatever the hell that means anymore. So the perpetual optimism that keeps fly anglers chasing fish across the flats is also what has kept us from seeing how bad it really is, and makes the con job of the resource managers just that much easier.

I know it doesn’t sound sexy, but short of getting the band back together (read Monkey Wrench Gang), the only way to get action is to make life painful for those who make the decisions – the resource managers and politicians. That’s how democracies work. You have to participate to fix shit that isn’t working. So far, recreational anglers are sitting on one hand and drinking beer with the other.

Sure, it’s a pain in the ass and may take away some of your fishing time, but unless this shit is fixed, you’ll have plenty of non-fishing time available in the not-too-distant future. Then you can write as many letters as you want lamenting the way it used to be, and you can use what you’ve made selling your gear on eBay to fix up the man cave.

Just because it seems like it’s free because there is no charge for being out there wading a flat, walking a shoreline, or poling a boat, don’t fool yourself. It’s not. What we invest in now is directly related to the benefits we’ll get later. Unfortunately, those who came before us didn’t invest enough and didn’t protect the investment. Those charged with protecting the resource have failed at their duties. So here we are in the shit show. Now get off your ass and pay your dues, do something about it.

 

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3 thoughts on “THE LOOMING DEATH OF OUR COASTAL FISHERIES

  1. Yes, we are witness to an ecological disaster in the making and money seems to be the major culprit, I.e, big sugar, greedy developers, poor foresight and now those who want to do cracking.

    • John if you’ll look in the current issue at southerncultureonthefly.com we have a whole list of links and organizations to get your voice heard. Also checkout the bonefish and tarpon trust page for a list of relevant links and info as well.

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