As fishing guides, charter captains, and other small business owners share their stories, decision-makers get inspired to make conservation happen in South Florida
From the top of a poling platform in the Florida Keys, a fishing guide scans the flats for a slender outline or a silver flash, whispering instructions to an angler at the bow. “There’s one at ten o’clock. Drop it right in front him. Strip… faster, now…” The more precise the directions, the greater the chance of hooking into the targeted fish. Patience and perseverance are critical, especially when almost every element is outside of your control.
In a moment of such pure concentration, politics should be the furthest thing from the mind of a guide. The unfortunate reality, however, is that our unique experiences on the water—not to mention the livelihoods of countless outdoor recreation business owners in south Florida—are directly affected by decisions made every day in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C.
So, these days, the captain who guides you to bucket-list bonefish and tarpon is more likely to be tuned into, and willing to speak out about, the policy decisions that could threaten the future of recreational fishing here in the Everglades.
And it’s paying off for conservation.
Gathering the Guides
For decades now, water quality across Florida’s southern peninsula has declined, causing massive seagrass die-offs and toxic algal blooms. The consequences of this trend are dire: The state’s fishing, boating, real estate, and tourism industries, as well as the health of its residents, all depend on the quality of its water.
Citizen engagement on this issue had been lacking, and politicians at the state and federal level let opportunities to fix these problems slip away. This water crisis could have been fixed years ago with greater awareness of the problem and available solutions.
This realization, combined with the tangible economic impacts to charter fishing businesses, inspired guides like Captains Daniel Andrews and Chris Wittman to take leave of their skiffs and spend their time educating others about Florida’s water mismanagement issues and possible solutions. In 2016, they founded Captains for Clean Water, a non-profit that advocates for clean water and healthy estuaries.
They had no idea that they would be rallying the outdoor industry to the front lines of a decades-old fight.
Action for the Everglades
Fast-forward to May 2018, when hundreds of anglers, business owners, and conservationists traveled to Washington, D.C., for the America’s Everglades Summit, a two-day event hosted by the Everglades Foundation. There, they took to the halls of the Capitol to make their voices heard.
“Our sense of urgency and the passion we share for this place, can only be felt in person,” says Captain Benny Blanco. “That’s why I made it a priority to show up and do whatever I could to convince decision-makers. My livelihood and the livelihoods of every South Florida guide hang in the balance. I think they can hear that in my voice.”
The group’s first request for Congress was to authorize the Everglades Agricultural Area Storage Reservoir in the 2018 Water Resources Development Act. This project will significantly reduce toxic discharges to Florida’s coasts and restore the flow of clean water to the Everglades, where it is needed.
Since then, the collective efforts of organizations like the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and Captains for Clean Water have helped to bring anglers together and push lawmakers to pass WRDA with critical support for the Everglades. This is strong evidence that when our community unites, we win.
“Having the ability to move forward on the reservoir south of the lake means that we are one step closer to saving Florida Bay and the northern estuaries,” says Captain Josh Greer, a southwest Florida business owner and fishing guide, who encourages his customers to keep up the pressure on lawmakers. “If we can do that, guides like me can continue to make a living on the water. We need everyone to continue making noise and pushing the state and federal government for funding before we lose the Everglades for good.”
The Next Chapter
The effort to restore the Everglades is far from over, and attention now turns to providing federal funding for the EAA Reservoir. In 2019, Captains for Clean Water pledges to lead this charge, rallying supporters and working with elected officials to solve this critical issue.
With so much at stake, the time to act for Florida’s water quality and outdoor economy is now.
“Restoring flows to Florida Bay has never been more crucial,” says Blanco, “but we’ve never had more evidence that the voices of recreational fishermen can make an impact.”
Learn more and get involved at captainsforcleanwater.org.
Alycia Downs is the communications associate for Captains for Clean Water, a non-profit advocating for clean water and healthy estuaries. As an avid sportswoman, writer, and Southwest Florida native, she creates content for numerous organizations promoting tourism, conservation, fishing, and outdoor involvement. Downs can be found casting lines along the Gulf Coast, where she lives with her husband Mike. For more outdoor inspiration and to get in touch, visit tideandtale.com or follow her on Instagram @tideandtale.
Top photo by Dusan Smetana