Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Why are Florida Bay bonefish so scarce? I'll tell you why. People. ... by gimleteye

Bonefish, an iconic species that habituate the shallow water flats of South Florida, and their disappearance were subject of a recent Miami Herald report by outdoor writer Susan Cocking. The Herald report mentions scientists scratching their collective heads at the complex problem. Let's cut to the chase. I can explain why bonefish are so scarce in Florida Bay: people can't govern their impacts on the environment.

The blame rests with taxpayers, with voters who return incumbents to office who couldn't care less, but especially with billionaire oligarchs from Big Sugar who control levers of power in Tallahassee and the nation's capitol.

The best days I spent with my father were the shared pursuit of bonefish we caught and released on Florida Bay in the 1970s. I would never have moved to Florida if not for bonefish and their once-magnificent habitat that I experienced and had every reason to believe would go on, forever.

That said, over the past twenty years I have drifted away from the backcountry where all that is left of the legions of bonefish, moving in singles or pairs or triangular squadrons across acres of sea grass flats, are splendid memories. The sun, the weather, the bay waters are unchanged. They will always beautiful to look at. But in the shallow water column from surface to sea grass bottom, everything changed.

Susan Cocking's recent story in The Miami Herald is vague: bonefish populations have collapsed, but it is not a phenomenon that started recently. I am sad to say I bear witness to the calamity of Florida Bay.

I know what I saw in the splendid 1970s when the bonefish populations were part of the riot of life that struck like thunderbolts in the bay. I know what I saw, when fish populations dodged the areas of algae blooms and could be found at the edges.

What I bore witness to was the collective energy of thousands of years of evolution of marine life sputter and grind to a halt. That's what it means to say, the bonefish are gone.

These years and this period of time also coincided with the enormous increase in public awareness and attention by boat manufacturers and electronic gizmo makers to flats fishing. Those industries put many more people in much closer contact with fish whose habitual patterns were disrupted, extraordinarily, in the Keys as they have been in the nearby Bahamas. Between people dominating water supply and water quality and people in skiffs flooding the flats, between people voting for elected officials who pay lip service to protecting the public commons, to people in industry whose main concern is cash flow, what chance do bonefish have?

Back in the 1980's I was an environmental activist and writer on marine resource issues in the Keys. The very mention of government intervention was set upon by loud and sometimes violent objection by commercial fishermen, right wing zealots, and property rights activists whose "organizing work" was funded by local chambers of commerce, the development lobby, and conservative think tanks backed by special interests. Big Sugar, for example.

Big Sugar is culpable on many counts: for its role commandeering the state's water supply, for suppressing government regulatory authority and science, for throttling any initiatives to protect water quality that would impinge on what they consider their right to grow sugar and pollute downstream waters. Even in the Keys, Big Sugar has had its hand in the till. For an even chance, bonefish would have better luck swimming through a school of hungry bull sharks.

Science points in many directions where corrective investments -- like Everglades restoration -- could have yielded benefits and still may. It's not hopeless. We know the environment is resilient. The problem is that restoring what made Florida Bay spectacular requires commitment by government to change the status quo that favors polluting industries and damaging economic activities. We approach those tasks according to laws and courts whose composition is established by powerful insiders. Some of these like to bonefish, too. And many take their fishing rodeos and expeditions to the Bahamas, Belize, or to the Indian Ocean free from the kinds of impacts they helped unleash in Florida Bay.

When politicians talk about balancing economic interests with protecting the environment what they are really doing is playing into the long game of kicking the can down the road. There is no question that for part of the radical constituency that abhors regulation operates on the principle that you can't do anything to protect the environment, so take what you can right now.

Instead of forward action by government agencies to regulate, to implement, and to enforce against violators, there is a general malaise that helps entire industries of lobbyists, environmental non-profits, kick the ball down the road. The revolving door between government and polluters, enabled by a diseased campaign finance system, ensures that the Golden Rule applies like its own toxic algae bloom across the environment.

Cocking's article (reprinted below) suggests that we really don't know, or need more data and science, to explain this mystery. Whateva. There is no mystery. For most of the time humanity has been its own worst enemy, we have called that mystery, "progress".

Florida Bay bonefish puzzle: Why are they scarce?

Changes in the bonefish population in Florida Bay have scientists looking for reasons.



Veteran Islamorada flats guide captain Craig Brewer used to keep very busy throughout the autumn months leading anglers to the catch and release of multiple bonefish in a day’s outing on Florida Bay. For most of his 25-year career, Brewer could count on those fall bonefish trips for a good percentage of his income. Not anymore.

“A lot of places where we used to find them, they’ve left,” Brewer said. “They’re just not around anymore. I lost a lot of days because of that. The ‘sportfishing capital of the world’ is not here as far as bonefish are concerned.”

Instead, said Brewer and some of his fellow guides, they must run north to Biscayne Bay or south to the lower Keys to locate bones for their clients. Or, if they stay in Florida Bay, they opt to chase redfish or snook.

“There’s definitely less and less bonefish in the area,” said Islamorada guide captain Dave Denkert. “Only a few flats hold fish and everybody’s fishing them.”

Nearly everyone agrees that the Florida Bay bonefishery has been in decline for a very long time, but took a steep dive in the past five years. A study published early this year by University of Miami bonefish researcher Mike Larkin and colleagues found the bonefish stock from Biscayne Bay through Key West is “bordering on an overfished status.” The last bonefish census in the region conducted in the fall of 2010 by UM and the non-profit Bonefish Tarpon Trust found a “substantial decrease” since guides and anglers began the annual count in 2003.

Researchers, guides and anglers cite a host of possible reasons for the scarcity of one of the South Florida’s most important sport fish: deteriorating water quality (algae blooms and septic system leaks); loss of sea grass and other habitat and prey; boating and fishing pressure; the extended cold snap of 2010; catch-and-release mortality; commercial netting that took place decades ago — and the combination of all of the above.

“It’s tough to take corrective action if you don’t know what the problem is,” said fisheries scientist Aaron Adams, operations director for Bonefish Tarpon Trust, a non-profit organization dedicated to research and advocacy for shallow-water sport fish.

BTT and UM have shifted efforts away from tagging and counting bonefish to finding out why their numbers are way down and why they frequent some locations while shunning their past haunts.

Adams said BTT has commissioned a study by Audubon Florida to determine if prey species (crabs, shrimp, and worms), sea grass, and water quality in the formerly bonefish-rich flats of Florida Bay have declined over the past 30 years.

Audubon researcher Pete Frezza says he and his colleagues will compare data from previous studies conducted in the 1980s and ’90s on abundance of animals and sea grass in several flats that once were inhabited by bonefish — Cross Bank, Buchanan Bank and Nine Mile Bank — to what lives there now. Then they’ll compare that critter coverage to two control areas where bonefish currently roam — Sands Cut in Biscayne Bay and the Sawyer Keys in the lower Keys.

Frezza says the field work — using metal boxes to collect bottom samples and seine nets to sift through them — is pretty much done. He expects to publish the findings around the first of the year.

Frezza, who also works as a bonefish guide in the Keys, says the study won’t bring the fish back but may determine why they aren’t hanging out where they used to be.

“Food and being safe are the primary things that drive these fishes’ lives,” Frezza said. “These are fish of strong, clear, ocean water tides. Florida Bay was an estuary — marginal as habitat. They were willing to go out of their comfort zone because there was food. Now there may not be tons of food.”

Captain Rusty Albury, a sixth-generation Islamorada native and 26-year veteran flats guide, says he has noticed a lot more pinfish on the flats of Florida Bay since the 2010 cold kill. Pinfish, which extend north to mid-Atlantic waters, are more tolerant of cold than some baitfish species.

“The pinfish are competing with the bonefish on the flats,” Albury said. “Why they’re not competing with them in Biscayne Bay, I don’t know.”

Guides say the lack of bonefish in the Islamorada area is hurting the local economy. Adams of BTT doesn’t doubt it; his organization has commissioned the first economic impact study of flats fishing in the Keys, due for completion in mid-2013.

Said Adams: “If water coming out of the Everglades is the problem, for example, the economic impact of the fishery would provide leverage to get that fixed.”


Leslie said...

I attribute the demise of the bonefish to the 300 million gallons of sewage being dumped into the bay everyday by the Miami-Dade County Water and Sewer Department. Why is WASD Director John Renfrow not being held accountable?

Anonymous said...

Renfrow should be another one long gone from the County. I'm still and forever continuing on about how he got transferred after the NW Well contamination fiasco. I don't forget environmental disasters and have lived here long enough to live through too many!

Renfrow will NEVER be held accountable and I will not forgive Gimenez for not getting rid of him. He has no excuse here.

But, back to what Gimlete has written, again, he is 100% correct on this issue!

Anonymous said...

Renfrow does exactly what the politicians want. Ask Terry Murphy or VNS.

Anonymous said...

3rd anon - you are correct! VNS haunts the commission even though she's alive and well and apparently living through Terry Murphy who got himself appointed to the new charter review committee doing her bidding and probably still looking for a good county job! VNS was the one who stopped the NW Well contamination investigation and also pushed through the extra "excrement" flow in to our bay.

Geniusofdespair said...

VNS is vile Natacha Seijas new readers.

Gimleteye said...

More than any other elected official, Natacha Seijas -- and by extension, Terry Murphy -- are responsible for the multi-billion dollar pileup of infrastructure projects in order to keep development costs low for campaign funders from the Growth Machine.

The day of reckoning is close at hand for Miami Dade taxpayers, and if you want to know who is responsible: look no further than Seijas and her proxies.

Florida villas said...

Really very nice post.

JasonM said...

I would be cautious throwing "right wing activists" and conservative think tanks into the mix here. Many of the so called conservatives are not. They are on the payroll of Big Sugar. Many of the most conservative people I know and fish with all care for and do more for the environment they enjoy so much.