Fishing guides in the Florida Keys turned to the tools of their trade to send a message to Tallahassee Thursday.
Using skiffs created to navigate Florida Bay’s shallow waters, about 40 guides and anglers set out from docks behind the World Wide Sportsman in Islamorada to spell out a simple missive in Little Basin: Help.
With winds blowing at more than 20 mph, their letters were a little less than perfect. But a floating tiki that punctuated their point more than made up for it.
The flats fishing industry, which pumps an estimated $465 million a year into the Florida economy according to a 2012 report, has been slammed by ongoing water troubles. In the fall of 2015, a regional drought coupled with lack of freshwater from decades of flood control triggered a seagrass die-off that eventually covered 25 square miles. The grass provides critical habitat for bonefish and other flats fish that draw anglers from around the world.
“This isn’t a protest as much as it is a cry for help from the Keys guides,” said Dave Preston, a spokesman for Bullsugar.org, which organized the event with the Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association. “Every day there’s a new Trump story, but nobody’s paying attention to what’s going on in their own backyard.”
The idea for the protest came up about a month ago, as this year’s legislative session got underway and opposition to a 60,000-acre reservoir to hold Lake Okeechobee runoff and backed by state Senate President Joe Negron mounted, Preston said.
Storing more water to the south would help revive the Everglades and help Florida Bay withstand droughts like the one that triggered the seagrass die-off and led to dismal fishing conditions.
Wednesday, Negron amended the bill, agreeing to drop the measure to buy land, and instead ordered the South Florida Water Management District to speed up work on a smaller, deeper reservoir on about 6,800 acres. The new deal is supposed to store up to 240,000 acre feet of water, but it’s not clear whether that will be enough to help the bay.
While some grass has started to grow back, fishing conditions remain dismal, said Pete Frezza of Tavernier, a guide and wildlife biologist for Audubon Florida.
“It’s been a rough couple of years,” he said. “The consequences of that two-year drought and seagrass die-off is what we’re still feeling. There’s so much barren bottom in the bay. That’s what’s had a significant impact.”
And a measure of just how significant was Thursday’s turnout by the guides, he said. “It’s pretty important and significant that the guides are this outspoken,” he said. “I haven’t ever heard them this concerned.”