Fishing for data
State recruits fishers to build stronger stocks
BY ROGER WILLIAMS
Capt. John “GiddyUp” Bunch had just gotten to the office recently and settled in to work when three men threw their beer cans and pop cans all over the floor — an office floor, in his case, that sprawls across 270 square miles of Charlotte Harbor, Florida’s second-largest bay, fed by the Myakka River in the northwest and the Peace River in the northeast.
There, Capt. Bunch — the founder of Operation Open Arms to welcome home combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan with free vacations, weddings or fishing trips — works as a fishing guide.
“We couldn’t believe what we were watching,” he recalls. So he began to collect the junk they’d set adrift. Then he bagged it, maneuvered up beside their boat and pitched the mess back onto their deck.
“They actually thought it was funny and apologized, after calling me a rectal orifice,” he recalls.
“‘Don’t take it personally boys,’ I told them. ‘My other option is to call my FWC buddy (the Florida Fish and Wildlife conservation commission) and have him ticket you. Show me some love and keep your trash out of my office. I work here.’”
One of countless “stakeholders” who use and love the waters of Charlotte Harbor, Capt. Bunch probably epitomizes the kind of person researchers at the University of Florida and Mote Marine Laboratories, along with the University’s Sea-Grant county extension agents, are looking to welcome to their new joint program: the Charlotte Harbor Fisheries Forum. He’s been fishing these waters for decades, and he cares deeply about them.
The call has now gone out to solicit the experience and knowledge of Capt. Bunch and anyone else in a public forum who can help data collectors.
“We’re hoping it will be a productive way to create a productive line of communication between users at the local level and scientists and managers,” explains Joy Hazell, the University of Florida’s Sea Grant extension agent in Lee County.
“The ultimate goal,” according to a press release, “is to pinpoint the needs and status of fisheries in more detail at the local level, allowing communities to give more complete, collaborative and sustained feedback to government agencies and researchers. Participants will work in small groups to brainstorm key local fisheries issues and discuss potential processes for building and sharing group information and recommendations.”
Part of the problem is the obvious, suggests Capt. Betty Staugler, the University’s Sea Grant extension agent in Charlotte County.
“There are more people, now. There have been more changes to the Charlotte estuary. There have been impacts to the fishery that may go back before data collections, so observations (of long-time and daily users, especially) can’t be quantified. But they’re important.”
Especially when delivered in a “”playsafe” environment of mutual respect for different ideas.
The new program is the brainchild of U.F. Professor Kai Lornezen, who used combinations of local wisdom, academic research and local management in developing countries to good effect, combining data with anecdote and intimate local knowledge to help maintain or restore healthy fisheries, says Ms. Hazell. (Professor Lorenzen did not respond to telephone and email messages before press time.)
Charlotte Harbor, meanwhile, is a massively beleaguered natural system, although no one fishery (snook or grouper, for example) is endangered at the moment, says Capt. Staugler — and it’s also the heart of a system worth millions of dollars annually to all the residents of the region extending from Sarasota to Naples.
Byron Stout, a retired, three-decade outdoors writer for The News- Press who grew up fishing the waters of Charlotte Harbor and its environs, offers some sobering observations about a reality that data may describe in scientific terms, without being able to offer solutions in real terms. Those solutions could be politically divisive.
“Florida’s FWC has good, long term, ongoing studies of fisheries in Charlotte Harbor,” Mr. Stout says. “There also are other organizations (San-Cap Conservation Foundation, South Florida Water Management District, and more) that do very solid work in the lower part of the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary, which extends south to Estero Bay. It would be great if an unbiased, conservation-dedicated organization compiled and coordinated all of it.”
But there’s a big “but,” in his view:
“The problem with Charlotte Harbor proper is water quality, and more importantly, water quantity.
“For decades, the historic water inflow to the harbor has been (steadily) decreased by agriculture and the phosphate industry. Once spring-fed by the Peace River, the harbor now only gets runoff that isn’t siphoned off by urban and, mainly, industrial users. That’s life-threatening for an estuary, which by definition is an area where salt and fresh waters mix.”
Several fish species have vanished already, including the famous sturgeon, as a result.
“The reason there no longer is any spring flow along the Peace River,” explains Mr. Stout, “is the phosphate industry. It systematically dams off the surface aquifers that feed into the river by constructing miles-long clay settling ponds across the landscape. These massive impoundments are filled with clay sludge that is a byproduct of phosphate extraction. The clay settles, hardens, and forms 40-foot-thick, impermeable walls across the environment that have the potential to be the only thing left of Florida after a nuclear assault.
“Unless there becomes some unexpected world need for clay,” Mr. Stout has concluded, “they are a permanent part of the planet.”
Capt. Bunch, meanwhile, has a few opinions not only about Charlotte Harbor, but also about research grants that fund such enterprises as the year-long Charlotte Harbor Fisheries Forum.
“Grants mean huge sums of money. Academics score grants to do studies. A study requires research. Research requires time and resources. Once a plan finally evolves it must be implemented. By this time it is time to stick your feet in the water and do something (before) the academics retire on UF pensions paid by We The Taxpayers.”
What would require no grants and no research and probably no discussion to improve the declining health of Charlotte Harbor right off the bat, he suggests, would be these two measures: first, ban lead in weights attached to fishing rigs that get “trapped in rocks, reefs, refrigerator, washers, dryers and old boats sunk on purpose for private reef fishing. Every UF academic knows lead in our fishery is not a good thing.”
And second, recommends Capt. Bunch:
“On or before June 30, 2015, all boats having tanks for human waste would be required to install a bright colored non-toxic food-type dye. As well, the boat would be fitted with a special outlet valve affording a slow dripping sink effect. In other words, those who dump at 1, 2, 3 or 4 a.m. would easily be flagged and fined. In addition, new yearly registration would require pump out verification and documentation. (We should) take a page from how they do things in pristine harbors like Santa Catalina Island off the coast of California. The first year for this common sense change should have begun on Jan. 1, 2000.
“The indifference meter has been running for 15 years.” ¦