by MIKE HODGE
Not too long ago, Flip Pallot reached for the microphone and addressed dozens of eager anglers during a Bonefish & Tarpon Trust banquet. His message, delivered in a labored, raspy voice, was short and sweet and to the point.
“There’s something wrong with our water.”
Anyone who has ever slung a fly in the Keys and its nearby waters would not disagree. The Keys, by all accounts, is a world-class fishery. For tarpon. For permit. For redfish. Bonefish? Not anymore. Countless theories why have percolated from local docks and into cyberspace. Truth is, no one really knows, at least at this point, what happened to the majestic flats speedster, which is a big reason why BTT started the Florida Keys Initiative, a series of studies and programs designed to protect what’s left of this treasured resource and restore it to previous glory.
Approaching its fourth year, the Initiative has chipped away to identify threats to the Keys’ bonefish and other popular flats species. Nevertheless, no one knows why the bonefish population declined, but more people than ever know there is something wrong with our water. To solve any problem, you must first acknowledge that there is a problem and a reason to do something about the problem. This past summer BTT released a study evaluating the economic value of flats fishing in the Keys. The bottom line: Keys flats fishing annually creates an economic impact of $465 million.
And money talks.
“That gives us a seat at the table,” said Dr. Aaron Adams, BTT’s Director of Operations. “What typically happens is you have a discussion with fisheries management and people will give testimony with their opinions, which is all necessary, but they’re only given so much weight. When we can step up and show the economic impact of a fishery, that typically raises eyebrows. It gives us some leverage. It allows us to make sure that flats fishing is part of the discussion and not considered an afterthought.” Once the economic barometer was announced, it wasn’t long before more folks got involved, everyone from Keys’ business owners to local guides. And a sense of teamwork has emerged.
“It is our home pool so to speak,” BTT board member Bill Stroh said. “Through that focus, what we’ve done over the past year or so has resonated with really well with the guides associations and the other constituents down there. I think we’ve become more relevant. The more relevant we become the better work we can do and the better support we’re going to get for that work. I’m really excited about it. I think that is going to go a long, long way into realizing our dream of what we’d like to see happen down there. The most positive thing to come out of this is we have brought people together. And it’s not us and them. It’s all of us together.”
With encouragement from BTT, a handful of Keys’ flats guides have outlined maps of their fishing areas to prevent possible restriction in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which is in the process of implementing a management plan. No boundaries have been decided, but BTT – and the guides — got their say. “It’s put BTT in a category where I didn’t have it before,” John O’Hearn, president of the Lower Keys Guides’ Association, said. “Before I just sort of thought of it as a fundraising arm with marine science. Now it’s become a flats fishing advocate.”
Perhaps the biggest victory of the summer came in Lakeland, Fla. when the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, with input from BTT and its supporters, designated bonefish and tarpon as catch and release. The FWC eliminated the harvest of tarpon except in the pursuit of an International Game Fish Association world record. Two months later, tarpon received even more protection when the FWC voted to eliminate the Boca Grande jig, a device often used by tournament fishermen in Boca Grande Pass. Conservationists now hope that the no-snagging rule will allow tarpon to resume their pre-spawn ritual, which may have been in disrupted by jigging and excessive pressure on the popular fish.
“During the last 10 years the Boca Grande jig became popular and extensively used, the behavior of the tarpon in the Boca Grande/Charlotte Harbor area definitely changed,” Adams said. “Fishing, more importantly catching, wasn’t as good with each passing year. The thought was the way the jig was fished vertically and using fish finders to stay over the fish didn’t really give them any down time, and that affects their behavior.” While Boca Grande tarpon can rest more easily, so too can the Keys’ tarpon. Earlier this fall, Keys residents voted to reject a study exploring the dredging of Key West’s main shipping channel to accommodate bigger cruise ships, a move BTT opposed because tarpon use the water as a refuge. “It’s all part of the bigger picture,” Adams said. “I think having the (economic) data helped change that conservation as well. It wasn’t just a few crazy guides out there. It was of economic importance.”
Even with those accomplishments, still looming is the decline of the Keys’ bonefish, an issue that BTT has addressed with several studies, one of which focused on bonefish prey. However, that research recently revealed that the amount of prey is a marginal factor. “There’s no obvious smoking gun,” Adams said. “At least for the moment, we can check off that box and put our efforts into other things.” O’Hearn, for one, believes the bonefish decline in part can be attributed to the freeze of 2010, which sent many a snook and other gamefish scurrying for cover after a stretch of record cold swept through South Florida. “Since the winter of 2010, the bonefishing hasn’t been a shadow of what it was,” O’Hearn said. “I’d say a third to a half of the population died that winter.”
Is it weather? Is it water? Is it a combination? Adams and other researchers have pondered these questions for years with patience and perseverance. “If it was that easy, we would have figured it out already,” Adams said. “That’s one of the challenges. The decline didn’t occur overnight. The recovery won’t occur overnight. It’s like gaining and losing weight. You don’t become overweight Monday through Friday. It takes a while.”
The biggest challenge is staying the course, even with a detour or two along the way. “It’s a complex biological problem and identifying the controlling bottleneck will not be easy or a short analysis,” BTT Chairman Tom Davidson said. “We’re confident that we eventually will get there, and in the meantime through increased awareness and conservation and improved resource management, we should be able to sustain and hopefully improve the fishery.” Stroh, who serves as BTT’s managing director for the Florida Keys, stressed the importance of a realistic, but positive approach to finding out what ails the Keys’ bonefish.
“We should all come away with a sense of optimism,” Stroh said. “The Florida Keys is still an amazing fishery. Fishing is still unbelievably good. Maybe the old-timers say you should have been here 20, 30, 40 years ago? But at the end of the day, people who are traveling (to the Keys) can still enjoy tremendous, high-quality fishing. What we’re trying to do is restore the fishery to what it was years ago and leave it that way for generations to come.”
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Mike Hodge is a freelance outdoor writer who lives and fishes in Florida.