WHERE HAVE ALL THE FISHES GONE?

Once fertile, the shallow waters of Florida Bay are now nearly barren of game fish, which have been driven away by high salinity or throttled in commercial gill nets
November 27, 1978

Florida Bay, which is situated between the tip of the Florida mainland and the Keys, was once one of the most productive sport-fishing grounds in the western hemisphere. Now it is teetering on the edge of ecological disaster. Indeed, it may already have begun an irretrievable slide. Over the past five years, and increasingly over the last two, the lure-gobbling schools of red drum, sea trout, snook and ladyfish that once made the Bay's fecund banks and flats a sure thing for anglers at every level of skill have dwindled. Tarpon are still fairly abundant, but for the most part only during their spring migration, and the remaining bonefish are found far from their traditional grounds. Ten or 20 years ago, a sport-fishing guide had only to run five minutes out of Islamorada, the famed fishing port located approximately halfway between Miami and Key West, to get into schools of all sorts. Now it takes a run of an hour or even more.

The problem is particularly acute in Everglades National Park, which bounds Florida Bay on the north. The park is a 2,100-square-mile reach of wet saw-grass prairies, hardwood hammocks, mangrove swamps and brackish estuaries that control the fate of all wildlife—terrestrial, avian or marine—in South Florida. The estuaries of the park are nurseries for nearly every game fish in the Bay. They are at the heart of the elaborate, fragile food chains in the Glades, whose final links are such species as the bald eagle, the tiny Key white-tail deer and alligators. We had come to the park to see what was wrong.

"Here's one problem that nobody has explained yet." said Hank Brown, a fishing guide from Islamorada, slowing his skiff to a halt in three feet of water. Rick Ruoff, another Islamorada guide, stopped his skiff as well. We had been running over healthy turtle grass, the hideaway and home for hundreds of marine invertebrates on which many fish feed. The green, undulating bottom now gave way to a patchy stretch of brown, dead vegetation. In these patches the only touch of green was a slimy fungus clinging to the withered clumps of grass. It looked like a submarine lawn that had been invaded by chinch bugs.

The normal salinity in these flats is about 37 parts per thousand. Now it's up to 42 or 44. "I asked Gary Davis, the park's marine biologist, to look into the problem two months ago. He said he'd get right back to me but I haven't heard a word yet," Brown said.

Even where the turtle grass is healthy, there is a paucity of fish. "It's gotten so bad," Ruoff said, "that I've been boning up on my bird watching. You bring a client in here at $125 a day and he wants to catch fish. At the rate things are going, pretty soon all we'll have are bird watchers. And then the birds will go, too, with no fish to sustain them."

Ruoff, 30, studied biology at the University of Miami and is commodore of the Islamorada Fishing Guides Association, of which Brown is secretary. Their 2-year-old organization, to which 50 of Islamorada's 60 or so licensed guides belong, was formed to put pressure on government agencies in hopes of bringing the fishing back to normal. Ruoff, Brown and many of the guides are also members of the Everglades Protection Association, which was founded last February. The EPA membership includes such top saltwater fly-fishermen as Billy Pate, Bob Deliere, Carl Navarre, Lefty Kreh, Stu Apte and Jim Lopez. Pate, 48, who is chairman of the EPA's board of directors, was fishing with Brown this day, along with Hercules Paul Zagoras, a Chicago-area attorney and sportsman. I was fishing with Ruoff.

"Salinity is certainly the basic problem," said Pate in his soft Carolina drawl. "Or to put it more pointedly, a lack of fresh water through the Glades."

Park Superintendent John Good and Davis, the biologist, agree with the sport fishermen that water balance is indeed the root of the problem. But it is a tough, gnarled root to cut. Basically what has happened over the past 75 years, and most rapidly in the past 20, is that the normal freshwater flow into the Everglades and through them into Florida Bay has been diverted—through flood-control projects and freshwater supply systems—to the heavily populated areas between Palm Beach and Miami and to the west coast of Florida, from Fort Myers to Naples. Irrigation projects for farming areas have further depleted the freshwater supply.

Before South Florida began to develop as a resort region and, later, as a second home for hordes of sun-loving Americans, the fresh water of central Florida drained down the Kissimmee River into Lake Okeechobee, then slid slowly southward and into the Everglades, which were known to the Seminole Indians as Pa-hay-okee—The River of Grass. Fresh water ranging in depth from a few inches to no more than four or five feet crept southward to Florida Bay, soaking the root systems of the ubiquitous saw grass and recharging the Biscayne Aquifer, a highly porous bed of limestone 110 feet deep, which is the only barrier against saltwater infiltration of the mainland.

Because salt water is heavier than fresh, the fresh water stayed near the surface, sustaining the Everglades' abundant—and in some cases unique—forms of life. When the saw grass died seasonally, it compacted on the bottom, rotted and built up a covering layer of muck that in some spots was 13 feet deep. With the gradual drying of the Glades, fires that in the old days merely helped to recycle saw-grass nutrients into the system now began to burn exposed roots as well. The saw-grass infernos of the early 1970s, following Florida's worst drought in history, actually burned into the muck, just as fire will burn a peat bog. Because highly organic soil oxidizes at a rate of about an inch a year when it is exposed to the air, the Everglades could in time become a bare, dead coral reef. The thickest layer of muck is now only seven feet deep.

The effect on fish life has been devastating. Many species, such as tarpon and snook, spawn only in brackish water. Among most species common in the area, juvenile fish can tolerate "sweeter" water than can adults. And because most fish are cannibalistic, the brackish estuaries provide a haven for the young, keeping out older fish that would gobble up even their own young.

The National Park Service recognizes the water-shortage problem. In reply to a letter from U.S. Representative Dante B. Fascell of Miami last February, the Park Service's Southeast regional director, Joe Brown, wrote, "Changes in the management of fresh water in southern Florida over the past 20 years apparently have destroyed the low-salinity estuarine nurseries that once supported local fisheries. These areas are now yielding fewer—but generally larger—game fish." Clearly, the big fish have invaded the once sacrosanct nurseries, and are consuming more offspring than they did in the past.

Another factor pointed out by Davis is that South Florida is long overdue for a hurricane. "This region usually gets hit by a tropical storm or hurricane once every five to seven years," he says. "The last big blow we had here was Betsy, in 1965." A hurricane flushes the system in a somewhat heavy-handed way. A great volume of rain falls, replenishing the marl and, to some degree, the aquifer. The nutrients that have been locked in place on the bottom and in the mudbanks are washed out, mixed and recycled throughout the system. Still, a hurricane is a high
price to pay for what would only be temporary relief.

One measure that should help reduce some of the park's salinity is already in the works. Next year the Army Corps of Engineers will plug the Buttonwood Canal, a cut made in 1922 to join the saline waters of Florida Bay with the brackish-to-fresh waters of Coot Bay and Whitewater Bay, two inland bodies of water near the west coast. The result of hacking this six-foot-deep-by-80-foot-wide shortcut has been high salinity in Coot Bay and lesser but substantial salinity in the vast reach of Whitewater Bay. In the 1979 federal budget $1.3 million has been allocated for the plugging operation.

"Plugging the Buttonwood should restore Coot Bay and Whitewater as nurseries," says Ruoff, "but the main benefit will be in the waters west of Cape Sable, out in the Gulf, which doesn't do too much good. It's the areas east of the cape that are suffering most from excess salinity. There's been talk of putting in a pumping station at Taylor Slough, east of the bad area, and shunting excess fresh water into Florida Bay rather than dumping it into the Atlantic. But that's still in the talking stages."

A storm cloud was now building to the west, growing larger, blacker and more ominous by the minute. That stifling, dead-quiet heat that precedes rain in the tropics was nearing a climax. "We've got an hour or two before it hits," said Hank Brown, squinting to the westward. "Then she'll cut loose—blessed sweet rainwater. Let's head on into Madeira Bay and see what we can hook up with." The guides fired up their motors and we skimmed into a shallow cut that allows access to the nearly perfect oval of Madeira Bay, an inlet of Florida Bay. Inside, the water went from gin-clear to mocha-brown in a skiff length, the indication of streams feeding into the Bay from the mainland. It is the food from these streams—microorganisms that draw mullet, crustaceans that attract baitfish, tarpon and other game fish—that still makes Madeira productive for the angler.

Mullet were mudding in a vast, beige fan near the outlet of one of the streams. Bottom feeders, they stir the muck to suck up microorganisms. In the process they frighten shrimp, crabs and other bottom dwellers on which red drum, sea trout, sheepshead, bonefish and channel bass like to feed. The mullet in this part of Florida Bay are primarily of the silver variety, a smaller species than the black mullet, which go up to two pounds. Because of their small size (three-quarters of a pound is average) and inferior eating quality, silver mullet are sold mainly for bait, while the black mullet, most common on Florida's west coast, are used for food.

"Apart from the salinity problem." said Brown, "there's the question of the commercial netters. When the park opened back in 1947, there were only about 15 or 20 men fishing this area commercially. They were tough old back-country guys whose families had been hacking a living out of the Glades since the days of the Seminole Wars. I've been told that the first park superintendent promised to let them keep fishing but that no new permits would be issued. We've checked all the records for that time but we can't find such a promise in writing.

"Anyway, what's happened is that the park is still issuing permits—more and more of them in the past two years. Right now we figure there are 181 commercial netters working the park waters under permit. In the two years since John Good was made superintendent, netting permits for the park have gone up by 67.6%. At the same time, the mullet catch is taking a nose dive—from 1,436,500 pounds in 1975 to 387,000 pounds last year.

"Sport fishing has fallen off, in our experience, by the same degree. I've worked these flats and banks all day, looking for mullet mud and the fish that will feed in it along with the mullet. Then when I finally find them, a commercial boat wheels up and sets its net—bang, just like that. You can bet your boots that plenty of redfish. snook, bonefish and the young of many species get taken in that gill net, all of them gilled out, killed, along with the mullet."

The netters work the whole park. Captain Andy McLean, a sport-fishing guide out of Everglades City west of the park, has kept catch records for more than a quarter of a century. From 1957 to 1966 his clients averaged 5.9 snook per day. From 1967 to 1976 the take was 2.7, and McLean says the past two seasons have been disastrous—"hardly worth going out for snook."

Last February the guides' association circulated a petition asking for a moratorium on netting in the park until a thorough study of the fishery could be made. They got 4,700 signatures in a few days and presented the petition to Good at an emotion-charged meeting at Islamorada's Cheeca Lodge. Good and Davis ultimately agreed to undertake a Florida Bay fishery management assessement (in other words, a hard look at the problem) and in August, Good declared a temporary moratorium on the issuance of new netting permits. For netters who had licenses, it was business as usual. The guides were angry at the half-measure, and Brown wrote a letter to Good saying, "To be completely honest with you. we would have much preferred to see a moratorium placed on all netting in the park until the assessment is complete, due to, as you mentioned, 'the seriousness of the situation.' "

Davis, however, feels that the netting is only a minor factor, if any. He believes the main problem is increased salinity. "The assessment isn't complete yet," he says, "but I don't think it will show that mullet are being overharvested. Why, at the time that the mullet take has been declining, the commercial catch of pompano within the park boundaries has risen from 100 pounds in 1973 to 17,000 pounds last year." Of course pompano are fished very differently from mullet, on the far offshore banks of the park. To be sure, the mullet catch is affected by market prices as well as abundance or scarcity of the fish. When mullet are present in great numbers, many commercial fishermen stay home rather than burn costly gas for fish that could bring less than 1¬¨¬®¬¨¢ per pound. Still, the profile of the mullet catch over the past three years has been steeply downward despite the fact that more men are netting them than ever before.

The assessment should be complete by January, at which time Good will make his recommendations regarding commercial and sport fishing in the park. Public hearings will be held, and Brown and the guides' association, as well as Pate and the EPA, plan to be on hand and vociferous.

Meanwhile, our angling in Madeira Bay—once one of the most productive "hot spots" in the area—was proving as dismal as had been predicted. A few sea trout, a sheepshead, a small jack crevalle and one tiny tarpon were all that responded to our lures. Not a single red-fish was to be seen, much less hooked.

"Redfish have always been our meat and potatoes," said Ruoff. "Let's face it, there's not too many anglers who want to put in the hard work and long days required to catch bonefish and tarpon, and then when you've caught them, you can't eat them. Most of the fishermen who hire us want to bring something home with them, something for the freezer. That means reds and trout."

Redfish and sea trout are unprotected by the Florida Fish and Game Commission, and no daily catch limits are placed on them. The park defers to the state of Florida on such matters. The guides' association and the EPA would like to put a 10-a-day limit on trout and a four-a-day limit on redfish. In fact, for the past two years the guides have imposed that limit on themselves and their clients. EPA members, being saltwater fly-fishermen in the main, release almost all of their fish routinely, keeping only those that might qualify for a record. Once again, Good and Davis aren't sure that a bag limit would help, and in any event they say their hands are tied: it's up to the state to declare these species game fish and impose take limits.

"We're ready to put up with anything positive that the park proposes," said Brown that evening over a cold beer at Papa Joe's in Islamorada. "If they want to put big chunks of the park off limits for sport as well as for commercial fishing, we'll go along with it."

We sat quietly for a while, letting the beer cut the day's salt from our throats, listening to the nearing thunder rumble over the whine of the jukebox. Little Things Mean a Lot. On the back wall, a mounted tarpon that must have gone close to 200 pounds in life arched motionless, its scales like $20 gold pieces in the fading light.

"Mainly, though, something has to be done about those salinity levels," said Brown. "Something that will put the fresh water back where nature intended it—into the nurseries of Florida Bay. Without that, everything else is just a holding action, a temporary stopgap. This is a situation unlike any elsewhere in the world. It's not like some salmon river that's been dammed and can be rigged out with fish ladders, or even a body of water with industrial pollution problems. This is a whole vast ecosystem that covers the entire southern tip of a growing state." He shook his head. "It would be a damn shame to see it destroyed."

PHOTOSTEPHEN GREEN-ARMYTAGE TWO PHOTOSSTEPHEN GREEN-ARMYTAGEDespite the deft poling of Guide Hank Brown, Billy Pate succeeded in hooking up with only a few sea trout on an afternoon in Madeira Bay. PHOTOSTEPHEN GREEN-ARMYTAGEThe dearth of game fish has not yet affected such Bay birdlife as the colorful roseate spoonbill.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)