Monday, September 1, 2014

Everglades Restoration and Our Responsibility

The headlines were ominous, “Advisory. High bacteria levels. Avoid contact with the water. Increased risk of illness at this time.” (Stuart, FL)Lizette Alvarez, NY TIMES. Only they weren’t referring to some accidental discharge or environmental catastrophe somewhere far away, they were talking about our beaches and estuaries, the very lifeblood of our South Florida home. I have lived here over 20 years and spend most of my time out on the water and have seen the devastation to the estuary year after year.

What is an estuary and why is it important to us? Where freshwater rivers meet oceanic waters, estuaries form. Estuaries require just the right mix of fresh water and salt water to support the sea grasses and aquatic life that thrives there. Estuaries are crucial to the ecosystem because they are a breeding ground for marine life. Our estuaries are important not only to us but to the people from all over the world that come to visit them. Visitors come to join us for bird watching, fishing, and for the beaches. Tourism is the backbone of economy and employs 1 out of every 5 people. We receive millions of visitors each year that generate billions of dollars in economic revenue.

The Everglades once covered almost 11,000 square miles of south Florida. Prior to 1905, water flowed down the Kissimmee River, into Lake Okeechobee, then south through the Everglades. The Everglades are as much as 60 miles in width, yet only six inches deep in some places. The area is home to a multitude of bird and fish species and is the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles live in the same habitat.

After 1905, plans were made to drain the Everglades to make the land suitable for agriculture and development. Large tracts of swamp were transformed into farmland and people settled along the coast. As the population grew, so did the need to provide flood control to the new residents of South Florida. The result was an extensive network of man-made canals, levees and water control structures that channel 1.7 billion gallons of water daily from the Everglades, changing the natural characteristics of the marsh.

In 1910, a dike was constructed around the south side of Lake Okeechobee as part of the drainage project. Over the next several years flooding caused by breaches in the dike killed thousands of residents. These deaths resulted in the construction and expansion of the Herbert Hoover Dike, almost completely surrounding the lake. Canals were dug to connect Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee River to the West and the St Lucie River to the East. Redirection of the natural flow of water from the south to the east and west was made with complete disregard to the environmental consequences.

This redirected water flow has negatively impacted the mixture of fresh water and salt water putting the grasses and aquatic life at risk. The “quick fix” has been to make fresh water releases from the lake. Additionally, to protect the aging dike itself, the South Florida Water Management District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have been forced to release even more water from the lake. During the summer months when heavy rains cause the lake water to rise, billions of gallons of fresh water polluted by agricultural runoff are released into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie river systems. The current solution of making water releases to alleviate the negative consequences caused by the redirected water flow has made problems worse.

Excessive releases of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee are made during the rainy season because water levels are too high. Smaller water releases are also made during the dry season in an attempt to keep the fresh and salt water mix at optimum levels. These constant water releases cause toxic algae blooms and the sediment from them smothers grass beds where sea life spawns. Not only are the estuaries now dependent on scheduled water releases, but these releases are now necessary to prevent flooding and to supply irrigation during the dry season to farming communities. The dike itself has been long ranked among the most vulnerable in the country and a 2006 report on the lake found it posed a “grave and imminent danger”.

The situation we find ourselves in is a result of poor planning. There is no quick or inexpensive solution. Allowing more water to move south like it’s supposed to, treating more water as it’s released into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers, or fixing the Herbert Hoover Dike to allow for more overall water capacity have all been discussed. Finger pointing and politics has stopped progress. The South Florida Water Management claims they have no money because Governor Rick Scott cut their budget. Governor Scott claims they can’t fix the dike because the Federal Government is not providing the necessary funds. We can’t release water south because of the Everglades Agricultural Area which is comprised mainly of sugar cane fields. The Sugar Corporations are often blamed for stymieing efforts for a solution to further their agendas even though they are responsible for much of the agricultural runoff pollution. “Big Sugar” has also been accused of having government officials in their pocket and indeed has donated a great deal of money to super PACs to influence elections. The finger pointing must stop and collaboration must begin immediately if we are to save our beaches and the vast diversity of our estuaries.

One idea is Plan 6 which is a program that promises to create a vitally needed flow-path to let water move south from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades instead of to the coastal estuaries. This plan requires the acquisition of about 50,000 acres of the 700,000 acres in the Everglades Agricultural Area (roughly 7%). The new acreage would be tied into existing public lands to form the overall Plan 6 flow-way. This would result in restoring the original flow of water into the Everglade south of Lake Okeechobee and eliminate the need for any more water releases. Plan 6 would replace other more costly plans that do not adequately restore the original Everglades flow nor keep polluted water from being released in the rivers. Additionally, Plan 6 would not require any change in infrastructure to Interstate 75 or the Tamiami Trail to the south. Existing culverts and flow-ways for those highways can handle the increased water flow.

Whatever the solution, one thing is sure, without intervention from citizens and government, we will lose valuable tourism, but most importantly, we will lose the vast diversity of our local estuaries. Getting involved is the only way we will save our estuaries, our local tourism and our livelihood. Contact your local legislators and demand a solution now. Without prompt action from our government and our community we stand to lose the most important things to our community. We now know what our estuaries are and what they mean to us, what caused the issues they are experiencing and how we can fix the state they are in. There are only two choices. Seek a solution that protects our beaches and estuaries or do nothing and destroy them both. The choice is ours. It’s up to us.
Please join Filmmaker Rob DeVore and me  as we study the causes and possible solutions on film. When complete, this film will be used as a fundraising tool for those non-profit organizations dedication to finding and implementing solutions and restoring the natural flow of the Everglades. Check out the link below to visit our kickstarter project page and find out how you can help!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Key West express

I was able to break away from real life for a few days and make a run down to Key West. The Florida Keys are one of my favorite places in the world for two reasons, there is always good fishing from boat, kayak or land, and the opportunities for photography are endless. Lobster season has just begun and the snapper spawn is drawing to a close. I didn’t have much time, so I wanted to do what I could in just a couple of days. Sometimes the greatest adventures aren’t planned or filmed or don’t last long, but they are found in how you perceive things.
An interesting liveaboard
On the way down, I stopped in Islamorada to visit friends. Linda Sheldon and Bobby Vaughn of Flying Fisherman invited me to stop by and see the FF Headquarters and maybe get a little fishing in as well. I was in a bit of a hurry, so I just stopped in long enough for a cup of coffee and to meet the staff.
A small retail area at Flying Fisherman's Corporate HQ
Flying Fisherman has a really cool company history. The company’s owner, Pat Sheldon, has been involved in sport fishing and video production in the keys since the seventies. The technology they use for polarized lenses came from experimenting with different filters while shooting video in the ultra-bright sunlight. As I toured the facility I couldn’t help but to think this was a cool place to work. They have a laid back atmosphere and everyone seemed really happy to be there. I was also surprised to learn that FF is worldwide and enjoys a huge following in Europe.

Bobby Vaughn showing me the worldwide reach

A Russian ad for FF

The happy and beautiful Linda Sheldon

Bobby in one of the many stockrooms

I arrived later in Key West in time to catch the sunset and get my gear together. The next morning I was meeting up with Randy Morrow, a good friend and the Southernmost Kayak Fishing Guide. Randy is the only person I am aware of who has completed an IGFA inshore slam from a kayak. A difficult feat by boat, the inshore slam consists of catching a bonefish, permit and tarpon in a 24hr period.

Randy stalking the flats
I met Randy at the launch bright and early. It was soon clear we were both a little under the weather, but we launched into the already thick and humid morning. Randy always shows me the coolest places, and this time was no different. We were on the skinniest of flats on an incoming tide. The water was crystal clear way off in the distance, there was thunder. We scouted for a while until I spotted an unmistakable tarpon rolling on the surface.

Randy hooked up
 I snapped photos while Randy tried to convince it to take a jig. It was about that time that I noticed the permit tailing about 20ft off the back of my kayak. I was slowly drifting in its direction so I casted a shrimp tipped jig in front to no avail. A couple more casts in the area yielded a very big permit taking a swipe at my jig boat side, only to be spooked away for good when he saw me. I paddled over to Randy who by this time had a fish on. It was a good sized jack for Randy’s light action rod and looked like a good fight.

A nice jack crevalle
The storm had been creeping up on us and by 9am, it was already time to leave. We had a couple hours of fun and got off the water just in time. I headed back to Key West where my Mom and Dad, sister and brother-in-law and niece were staying at the Galleon.

There are many tall ships in Key West harbor
This is by far the best place to stay in Key West. The Galleon is situated on the site of one of the many warehouses that used to line Key West bight. This is where Edgar Watson of the 10 Thousand Islands cut his neighbor Santini’s throat during an argument. Santini lived and Watson had to pay $900 in restitution. This was also the place where Mel Fisher stored the treasure of the Atocha. The warehouse is long gone and now the Galleon sits in its place.

The view from the condo

Our little bait stealing friend
I spent the rest of the day fishing from the Galleons dock. Over the years we have caught big snapper, grouper, tarpon and just about everything in between from the dock. This day was no different and I jump one tarpon and we caught and released several nice grey snapper, cleaning a few for dinner.

Storm rolling in

A visitor
One of the smaller snapper from the Galleon dock

The next evening I was preparing for an early bedtime. I was leaving the next morning for the drive back and wanted to leave around 5am. My sister Angie had other ideas. One of the local party boats, the Gulfstream IV, runs night trips during the snapper spawn, and she wanted to go. Over the years, I have been on every party boat in Key West, and the Gulfstream has always been one of my favorites. There is always lots of room and the staff is friendly. This time was no different and the mate Gregg and his wife Cindy took care of us.

the sunset aboard the Gulfstream IV
We were out from 7pm to 12:30am and the trip didn’t disappoint. We were into yellowtails, big greys and even a few lane snapper. The real show was the three ladies who were having a “girls” weekend. It didn’t matter if they caught a small grunt or a 5lb grey snapper, they were excited and wanted everyone else to know about it. By the time we disembarked, I was exhausted. I exchanged contact info with Gregg and we made plans for a return trip and fishing in his favorite spots.  
Key West waterfront at night

Back at the condo and in bed by 1am, I set my alarm for 5am. “I can rest at home”, I thought. I didn’t sleep right away though. I thought about all the things I packed into a couple of days. Met up with old friends and met some new ones. Spent time with family. Even caught some fish. I closed my eyes, offered up a prayer of thanks, and drifted off to sleep. I have a good life.