Monday, December 6, 2010

My Final Quest

When I was in high school, in Ft. Myers, Fla, I spent one summer working in a filling station. I worked 11 hours a day, 6 days a week and got paid $10 a week, but I wasn't worth it. The next summer I started fishing with some older firemen. They worked 24 hours at the firehouse and then had 24 hrs off. In their “off” time they fished and made more money than they did working as firemen. I would fish with one man one day and another the next. They would always share the profits. I don't really know why they took me along, except that I really loved it, and would watch and learn, but probably because I didn't complain about the heat, mosquitoes, or “no-see-ums”. Another factor was that there were few people out on the water, particularly during the summer, and almost no chance of getting help. In fact, there weren't many people in the county (about 10,000). Tourists season was only January and the first two weeks of February. This was due to the mosquitoes and no air conditioning. The tourists generally fished for Tarpon.

We would generally catch several hundred pounds each day, so I would make more every day fishing than I had in a week's work at the filling station. We would fish for:

Trout- at 26 cents/pound

Snook- at 18 cents/pound

Redfish- 15 cents/pound

Mullet- 8 cents/pound

Our boats were little wooden 16' skiffs, powered by two, Johnson 5 horse outboard motors. The two motors were necessary because they were not real reliable and we would have a long way to pole back to the dock. Ten horse motors were just coming on-line. Some of the fishermen had their own boats, but they could be rented for a dollar/day.

For a couple days before and after the full and new moons there are strong tides. We could cash in on a bonanza during these tides during August and September. We would take two boats, for safety, and launch

from Bokeelia, at the northern end of Pine Island. In the morning we would catch bait and some mullet to cook on a stick, for lunch, then wend our way southwest to the south end of Cayo Costa Island at Captiva Pass. That trip would take a little more than an hour. Then we'd go ashore and cook and eat the fish, along with beans or other food we brought along. After a rest or nap we would wait until the tide had turned out for a couple hours. Then we would anchor our boats about 100 yards off shore and about a quarter mile north of Captiva Pass. Action was swift and continuous. We would start catching 12-18 pound Snook and a few Redfish of a similar size. When the water was clear, you could see the fish stacked like cordwood all the way to the shore. Normally we would end up with 600-1,000 pounds per boat. Going back to Bokeelia would take a good four hours with the load.

That went on for several years. About 1952, while I was in college, there was a sudden drop off and after a few more years it dried up completely. I thought maybe we just caught them all, but I was sure that wasn't so, and at that time there was nobody else fishing there. People who fished in other areas also noticed the decline. It remained an unsolved mystery.

Fast forward a couple of decades. I returned from the service and started doing a little fishing, along with tending to our small orange grove and looking for a job. Fishing wasn't the same, even with my old cohorts. I mainly used a cast net for mullet, but would carry a rod and reel and occasionally catch a red, snook, or trout.

I finally landed a job with the Department of Environmental Regulation, which I enjoyed and worked my way up the ladder. I learned a tremendous amount about the legal aspects pertaining to the environment. After about 5 years, I had gone about as far as I could go and had a few tiffs with the the Tallahassee bureaucrats and decided to leave.

I did a little cast netting and our grove had been somewhat neglected, so I got it back in shape. Early one morning, I was picking oranges out of our tallest tree. I had fallen out of it the day before, but thanks to my training, I made a perfect parachute landing fall, and didn't get hurt from the 20 foot drop. This particular morning I was up a little higher. Suddenly, I heard a deep voice say, “Good Morning”. I was stunned, because that voice was coming from directly overhead. Slowly, very slowly, I looked up, half expecting to see my maker, but instead it was a man in a hot air balloon, not ten feet over my head.

After that little thrill, I thought-- The good Lord made three times as much water as he did land, so that meant he intended us to do three times as much fishing as we do farming and I was getting behind, so I decided to be a full time commercial fisherman.

I got a lot of help from commercial fishermen, in regards to equipment etc. I had met many of them while working for the State. They had provided me with a lot of information about illegal environmental activities. I had even started attending their monthly meetings, and joined them. While starting off I fished with one of them for a couple of months, and learned a lot.

Since I was no longer employed by the State, I waged my own environmental wars, taking on a couple of big developers as well as the Corps of Engineers, the Water Management District, and County government- with considerable success in all cases. My daughter always kidded me about “jousting (tilting) windmills”. She eventually made a bumper sticker for my truck—“Rocinante” (Don Quixote's horse).

Most of my time was spent fishing, with a gill net that was deployed off of the stern of my boat. I carried 600-800 yards of net, to run around a school of mullet and then put the excess in the middle of the circle for the fish to be caught by the gills.

Recreational fishing groups had been pressing hard for banning this type of fishing, falsely stating the gill nets were catching all the fish and depleting the stock of fish, adversely affecting the much more economically important recreational fishing. They had tried to sell this argument to two separate governors and cabinets, but after listening to all the facts and data they declined to take action. First of all commercial fishing only accounted for 10% of the total catch, and the gill nets were very selective in what they caught. They were so selective that our mullet fishermen had to use 6-8 different sets of nets, with varying mesh sizes. Nine days out of ten I wouldn't catch any fish other than mullet, and the bi-catch would be of the same size. By contrast, beach seines and purse could catch everything.

Like most the citizens of Lee County, I had been sprayed by Mosquito Control fleet of aircraft, flying low level in formation all over the county, using Malathion.

This was different. It was a single plane. As I watched, most of the “fog” of the pesticide drifted over the water. That was a trigger that set me off on a new crusade.

I had known for years, that our mosquito control notified bait shop owners when they were going to spray in their area—so they could cover their tanks. My research showed that Baytex (Fenthion) which was being used on the islands, was specifically labeled—Not to be used where shellfish and crustaceans are important. I also learned that the fertilized eggs and larvae of spawning snook are also susceptible. Viola-- The rapid decline in snook populations witnessed in the 50's, coincided with the beginning of mosquito control. The early morning spraying would catch the young snook larvae as they drifted back in through the passes, into the very shallow water of extra low tides. This would also affect shrimp and other crustaceans in a foot or so of water. But what about redfish? The once abundant fiddler crab throughout the area, were now almost extinct along with the other small crustaceans living among the mangroves, which is a nursery for redfish.

My arguments were carried on in the local press and on TV for months, without result. All was not lost though—a couple years later, after I had retired from fishing, mosquito control made a mistake. They sprayed a beach during the middle of the day at the request of a politician who was entertaining that evening. Beach goers were furious and it resulted in the Governor calling a special workshop, to which I was invited. We got the Baytex banned, and only helicopter spot spraying with a larvicide was permitted in the mangroves,--thus ending my jousting career.

Unfortunately, this victory came after recreational fishermen, assisted by a lot of Texas money were able to squelch the protest of commercial net fishermen, and get a voter approved constitutional amendment to ban gill nets. Fishermen who for generations knew no other trade were put out of work. One more case, where money was able to sway votes, contrary to facts, by a mass media blitz of inaccurate and deceptive information. Sound familiar?

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