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On the Water: What did I come home to?

By Staff | Aug 15, 2018

Capt. Bill Russell

Usually it’s great to come back from a long vacation and catch up on the good fishing that I missed. That sure isn’t the scenario I returned to this summer. At the time I left the state in early July, we had isolated concentrations of red tide and I was really hoping it would dissipate and all would be good when I returned. Well, upon my return it had gotten much worse, worse than even I could have imagined. I have lived my entire life on Matlacha and Pine Island, witnessed many outbreaks of red tide or toxic algae and the devastation it brings. This one is different, the results are far more severe and widespread, killing all species of fish, plus dolphin, sea turtles and manatees.

I rely a lot on the oldtimers, primarily the commercial fishing families I grew up with, to get a real pulse on what’s going on with our waters and environment. There was a time when the Organized Fishermen of Florida was an extremely powerful group made up primarily of commercial fishing families that fought hard to protect the waters and environment that provided their livelihood. Many of these old salts believe that human alteration of natural watershed and overpopulation has caused much of the problem. The nutrient rich run-off dumped into our waters feed the red tide. They may not have the scientific data, but with generations of firsthand knowledge, they have a better understanding of water and environmental issues than most.

This is just my opinion based on those I have spoken to, facts I have gained and what I have witnessed over the years. I believe this has been brewing for a long time and it just finally come to the point where the environment can’t overcome the human induced pollution any longer. Red tide, toxic algae and excess fresh water from Lake Okeechobee play a big factor for sure, but there is more. We have destroyed so much land to keep up with Florida’s massive growth, the run-off has no chance to percolate in the ground before reaching the waterways. Untreated sewage, fertilizers from homes, businesses, farms and golf courses, plus run-off from roadways and parking lots often flow directly to our waters. Add all these factors with high levels of rain and you can get the “perfect storm” that we are witnessing.

The population and development of Florida has exploded in the past few decades while the environmental issues the massive growth caused were ignored. I remember as a little kid sitting on a seawall in Matlacha Pass as the dredges passed to begin digging the Cape Coral canals on the north side of Pine Island Road. Of course, at the time I was far too young to think anything about it, but I have often wondered in recent years just how much better the waters around us would be if much of the developed land was still native pine flatwoods, cypress and flag ponds.

I have learned over the years that mother nature has a remarkable knack for healing herself if given the chance. She needs our help, we created this mess and it’s up to us to correct it. If we all do our part and get involved, get educated on the facts, stop pointing fingers and become one voice, we can make a difference. Captains for Clean Water is a good start, it is a local non-profit organization, initiated by a couple fishing captains that realized a few years back that our waters were in trouble. They have become a powerful voice and have a lot of information on their website at www.captainsforcleanwater.org.

On a positive note, the waters from Matlacha Pass north past Bokeelia and up the eastern side of the Charlotte Harbor looked pretty good. No dead fish or smell, actually the area was alive with fish, sea turtles, manatees and dolphin. The easterly wind may push the bulk of the red tide off the beaches into the gulf. Eventually it will clear up, but the damage is done. We cannot put this out of our minds when things return to normal, it will only be worse next time. As citizens of Florida it’s our obligation to stand as one and make sure a plan of action is initiated to reverse this environmental catastrophe. This cannot and will not be corrected overnight, it will take years if not decades, but with our help, we can give mother nature a fighting chance.

As a native of Pine Island, Capt. Bill Russell has spent his entire life fishing and learning the waters surrounding Pine Island and as a professional fishing guide for the past 18 years.