IT’S JUNE AND FISHING SEASON is in full swing across the U.S. Not only is fishing a fun activity that provides a unique opportunity for kids to bond with parents, it’s also a huge economic engine. According to the American Sportfishing Association, 55 million Americans went fishing last year, supporting an industry that has a $115 billion economic impact and employs 828,000 people. So what do we need in order to continue this economic juggernaut? Well, to reduce it to its simplest form: Anglers need fish, and fish need clean water. That’s it. But in Florida, the nation’s number-one fishing hotspot, an ecological disaster is unfolding.
Florida has 2.4 million anglers who are facing a bleak year of fishing in many spots in the state, and it all boils down to poor water quality. The biggest culprit has been 150 years in the making, but this spring, the Sunshine State’s failure to protect its most valuable resource was on display.
Heavy winter and spring rains — the result of a strong El Niño — caused perilously high water levels at Lake Okeechobee’s Herbert Hoover Dam, which forced the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release water to ease the pressure. Before humans got involved, water would flow south into the Everglades’ “river of grass,” but South Florida has been re-plumbed, so this wasn’t possible. So up to 3.4 billion gallons a day were literally flushed into the Okeechobee Waterway, a manmade ditch that runs from Stuart on the east coast to Fort Myers on the west coast. Both are home to estuaries that serve as natural hatcheries for many species of Florida gamefish. This nasty brown sludge, masquerading as “fresh” water could be seen mingling with the pristine water on both coasts, causing an uproar among Floridians. The cause of this putrid nitrogen and phosphorus-laden water? Big Sugar, which owns 184,000 acres of land in the Okeechobee area.
In 2014, Floridians voted for Amendment 1, so the state could buy this land from U.S. Sugar Corp. and restore the traditional flow of the Everglades, but for nearly two years, only 7 percent of the money had been used for that purpose, with most expenditures diverted to cover agency operating expenses and make the budget look better. But faced with visual evidence of Florida’s governmental failures, the people got pitchfork-and-torch-carrying mad. Pressure was brought to bear by groups such as the Recreational Fishing Alliance, American Sportfishing Association and the Audubon Society, influential individuals such as Miami Herald columnist/novelist Carl Hiaasen, and scathing social media campaigns.
Now, it might just be coincidence that during an election year Florida legislators decided to get off their collective duff and authorize $250 million a year, with most going for the restoration of the flow of water to the Everglades, but more likely it was the cry of “throw the bums out” that did it. Will the money actually be spent? Stay tuned.
For those of us who care about fishing and clean water for boating, let’s make enough noise to make this a campaign issue that politicians can ignore … at their own peril.