Living Waters

Saving bass fishing in the 'Glades

In a classic struggle between preservation and conservation, the Florida Everglades' outstanding bass fishery may be lost …Of all the environmental destruction we have committed in the name of progress, the most notorious victim has been the South Florida water system. It has survived much abuse, as we have dried up wetlands for development and agriculture and sucked away water — its lifeblood — for consumption by millions.Now, the system's heart is giving out and, without artificial resuscitation, it will die. Its heart, of course, is the Florida Everglades, and resource managers estimate that nearly $8 billion and 30 years will be required to restore a steady beat.The time and expense are worth it for this vast ecosystem, which has no counterpart anywhere else in the world. The Everglades' saw grass plains are a wonder to gaze upon — even though they are but one-half the size they were 200 years ago. The 13,000 square miles of savannas, prairies, marshes, sloughs, hammocks and islands of hardwoods are home to alligators, birds, bears and such endangered species as the Florida panther.What little remains of the system's natural plumbing helps sustain the aquatic health of Florida Bay and the Keys with flushes of fresh water and nutrients.Not insignificantly, that water also provides some of the best bass fishing in Florida. Ironically, much of that fishing exists because of the abuse that has been heaped on the Everglades — not despite it. It exists in and around canals dug to direct water to cities and farms for consumption, and divert flow to protect developed areas from floods.As with Rodman Reservoir to the north, this great fishery resource was created quite by accident during a time when little consideration was given to environmental consequences. And as with that remnant of the Cross Florida Barge Canal, the canal fishery of the Everglades is not appreciated by preservationists, who insist it must be destroyed if the ecosystem is to be restored. For many of them, people and outdoor recreation simply do not fit into the restoration equation.Preservationists had bureaucracy on their side at first, as the original conceptual design for restoration included filling in the canals. But a few determined anglers banded together to awaken the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District (WMD) to the recreational value of the canals."We'd go to these meetings and ask the people running them if they'd ever been to the Everglades, and they would say that they hadn't," remembers Brad Arnold, a guiding force behind South Florida Anglers for Everglades Restoration (SAFER). "They had no idea that we were out there fishing."They do now. This past summer, two Corps "outreach specialists" even participated in a SAFER tournament that was initiated to raise awareness about the threat to some of Florida's best bass fishing. Representatives from the Corps and WMD also attended a SAFER meeting.They have the attention of the people who matter, and that's important," says Jon Fury, a fisheries biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).

 That agency also wants to save the canal fishery."We could not support filling canals that provide high-quality recreational opportunities unless it was necessary to accomplish hydrological restoration," says Allan Egbert, FWC executive director, who adds that the Corps and WMD should show in detail why the canals must be filled to achieve restoration goals.Just because SAFER has raised awareness about the fishery and even gained some support within the Corps, however, doesn't mean that those who want to fill in the canals are less determined."Those within the National Park Service are more vocal than most," Fury says of the opposition. "But a lot of people, including some in the Water Management District and the Department of Environmental Protection, want to fill in those canals."Whether the fishery can be saved will be determined in the months and years ahead, as restoration progresses and the sides square off, each soliciting public, political and scientific support.The following provides a more detailed look at the Everglades and South Florida's water system, the plan for restoration, and the fishery we may lose if we do not actively defend it.Will work ever begin?If the rest of the Everglades restoration goes as slowly as that at Lake Trafford, then overall completion likely will be in 300 years, instead of 30.A 1,500-acre gem that is currently flawed, Trafford lies in the southwest portion of the Everglades, the largest natural lake south of Okeechobee. Its seepage and sheet flow feed Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. Panthers and bears roam its undeveloped shores. Eagles nest in nearby trees. Bitterns, purple gallinules, stilts and even roseate spoonbills wade in its waters.In 1996, oxygen depletion from an algae bloom triggered a massive fish kill. Muck from decades of dead hydrilla accumulating on the bottom contributed to the disaster. Like Lake Okeechobee at the top of the Everglades, Trafford has no natural outflow, and therefore can't be flushed without human intervention. The bottom must be dredged to prevent more fish kills and keep the lake from turning into a marsh thick with willows and cattails.Aided by FWC biologist Frank Morello, Ann and Ski Olesky, the owners of Lake Trafford Marina, have been lobbying steadfastly for rehabilitation to begin. Theoretically, this could be the first completed project in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program (CERP).Or not. Delay has piled upon delay."On the west side, this lake is the heart of the Everglades. I'm not going to let her die," says Ann Olesky, who wears her heart on her sleeve when it comes to the lake that she and her husband love."This lake could be an important pilot project," she adds. "Lake Okeechobee is her big sister. I hope that the powers that be realize how important this is."Morello says they do. "Commitment from this community (Immokalee) will make this happen," he says, adding that cookbook sales, bingo nights, bluegrass concerts and other fund-raisers have contributed $40,000 toward restoration. That's not much monetarily, he admits, but it shows devotion to a cause.The latest delay has arisen because state and federal governments have allotted $16.5 million for the project, and all bids came in too high."The South Florida Water Management District has hired an outside consulting group to revisit the design," Morello says. "We feel that it (the muck removal project) can be redesigned and still achieve our objectives."If all goes smoothly, work actually could begin in 2003.Ann Olesky says she will believe it when she sees it. Despite her pessimism about bureaucracies, however, she is not giving up on saving Trafford.

"If they don't do something," she says, "well, we're just going to go ahead anyway."The plan to restore Florida's EvergladesAlthough Lake Trafford's rehabilitation might be the first delay in restoring the Everglades, it won't be the last. In fact, with hundreds of interests and dozens of agencies involved, delays will be inevitable for this project, which is being financed by the state of Florida and the U.S. government.Just a few months ago, for example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was forced to halt planning on efforts to restore natural flow, which is arguably the most ecologically important element of the $8 billion CERP project. It is possible the Corps and its chief partner, the South Florida Water Management District, have resumed work by now. But just as likely, they have not. Barring more complications, estimates range from 2005 to 2010 for water to begin a more natural flow through the Everglades.

"The bottom line is that the Corps technically did not have a plan in place to protect the 8 ½-square-mile community from flooding," says Dewey Worth, WMD project leader for the Decompartmentalization Team. "The Corps will have to come up with an alternative, and right now, we don't know of any."A federal judge precipitated the halt when he ruled that the Corps does not have the authority to force out 102 homeowners in order to build a levee system that would protect the rest from flooding as restoration moves forward."If we flow water right now, we'd damage private property," adds Richard Bonner, a deputy district engineer for the Corps. "That means we've had to stop much of the work and back off. We don't want to do modeling and assessments until we know what we actually can do."
Bonner says that alternatives are being considered, and there are plans to appeal the decision and lobby Congress for the authority to force about one-quarter of the community's citizens to move so that the rest can be protected. He is quick to add that, by law, the Corps itself is not allowed to lobby.There are some very vocal people who want to stay there, despite the area's history of flooding," Worth says. "And, of course, there are others who want to move."Worth's Decomp group, with FWC biologist Jon Fury as a member, is one of about 15 Project Delivery teams operating on "10 critical projects" authorized by Congress, according to the WMD project manager. "We are tapping our own internal resources to staff all of this," he adds. "The Corps, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service all have had to add people."Restoration work will include adding buffer lands to keep development from encroaching, inserting underground barriers to slow seepage, building reservoirs and bridges, removing levees and filling in canals. Altogether, these aren't very "natural ways" to restore flow, revitalize wildlife habitat and help make South Florida's water supply more sustainable. But more than 100 scientists and resource specialists believe CERP will work, and they insist flexibility will be retained throughout the process so changes can be made when necessary.One of Decomp's main priorities, when the planning resumes, is to come up with a way to improve water flow through Wildlife Conservation Area 3, just west of Miami, and into Everglades National Park. "Right now, the system has been fragmented into compartments, and we want to remove those compartments," says Worth.
Without any thought given to the consequences for sportfish and fishermen, planners included filling in the canals as part of the original restoration design. Since then, SAFER and Florida's wildlife agency have argued in favor of keeping the canals and worked hard to raise awareness of their importance.We want to restore the ecological connectivity of the area," says Fury. "We want to remove natural barriers to sheet flow."But my point is that if the canals no longer are used for conveyance (of water), by removing the levees we can have sheet flow over the canals, so they don't have to be filled in."I'd also like to use levee material to re-create some of the tree islands we have lost."Fish, wildlife and anglers benefit from canalsThough tree islands and other wildlife habitats in the Everglades have been lost to development over the years, canals dug for flood control, agriculture and water supply have blossomed into some of the state's best bass fisheries. L-67A, L-67C, L-29, and the Miami River Canal — all in Wildlife Conservation Area 3 — are among the best. And all are included in the 240 miles of canals that many would like to fill in the name of restoration."A lot of people don't realize that this is an important recreational fishery," says biologist Jon Fury. "We have some of the best catch rates — as high as two bass per hour sometimes — and the state average is just 0.33."Fury also notes that a six month survey reveals that anglers who fished the 26 miles of the L-67A contributed $1.1 million to local economies.Brad Arnold of SAFER echoes Fury's appraisal of the fishery. "You might catch 50 or 100 fish a day when it's really hot. And during about a two month stretch, if you don't have 30 pounds (five fish), you're not even in the money in tournaments."
Typically, the best angling occurs when low water in surrounding marshes concentrates fish in the canals. Birds, alligators and other wildlife also take advantage of these deep water refuges. When the water is high, fish and anglers alike can spread out into the surrounding marshes, with the latter often using Marsh Access Trails provided by the FWC and WMD.Despite their recreational, economic and biological benefits, though, some still want the canals removed."Canals are not a natural part of the Everglades," says Mike Zimmerman, an ecologist with Everglades National Park. "They cause the marsh to be bypassed for flow, they act as a conduit for exotic species of fish and they transport contaminants."Chris Farrell, a biologist with Audubon of Florida, adds, "The whole purpose of the canals was to drain the wetlands. It's hard to have historic flow with the canals in place."Farrell says, however, that more modeling is needed to determine exactly what should be done with existing canals. "It's just that certain canals in certain places will be difficult to deal with," he says. "We're pointing out why there shouldn't be canals in some places. But we're also emphasizing that they (Corps and WMD) consider all uses."Fury, Arnold and others counter that removing levees will be enough to restore sheet flow through the marshes. During high flow, the canals will be little more than the equivalent of old river channels in reservoirs. When water is low, they still can provide deep water refuges. "It hasn't been modeled that leaving the canals would impact sheet flow," Fury says."The only possible way the canals could be a problem would be during low water," he adds. "But during these times, you simply try not to draw water out of the canals so they don't, in turn, suck water out of the marshes."

 Melaluca madness
In contrast to exotic fish, exotic plants have had a devastating effect on the Everglades ecosystem. Hydrilla infestation, for example, led directly to the fish kill on Lake Trafford.But melaluca trees have been the worst. As with so much of the work in the Everglades during decades past, they were planted to dry up the "river of grass." Additionally, they and Australian pines were planted around Lake Okeechobee to stabilize levees.They were seeded by agencies back in the 1950s," says FWC biologist Tim Regan. "The problem we've had on Lake Okeechobee is that the seeds got out into the lake and started to crowd out native plants. We probably had 10,000 acres of melaluca on the west side of the rim canal.""Had" is the key word. Since 1992, WMD and the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) have been spending millions a year to eradicate the exotics."We've got it pretty much under control now," says DEP's Jackie Smith.People are important in restoration planSam Griffin has spent most of his life on or near Lake Okeechobee, the 450,000-acre lake on the north side of the Everglades.When my mother drove me to West Palm Beach, we'd see air boats alongside Highway 80," remembers the fishing guide and lure designer."Now it's all agricultural land. It's the same thing now on both sides of Highway 27. Today, we just consider everything east of here to be Miami."And, indeed, that's a fairly accurate assessment, as development has crept slowly up the coast from Miami, and inward until it connects with the wetlands-turned-farms that surround the Big O. The lake, meanwhile, has been changed into a flood control and water supply reservoir, with its flood plain cut off and its water level manipulated to meet the needs of millions who live nearby.But Okeechobee is surviving, and some of the best news to come out of South Florida these days is that its fishery has bounced back from yet one more ecological threat."We've regained the vegetation we lost," says an excited Don Fox, FWC fisheries biologist. "The eelgrass is back. The peppergrass is back. We've gained 50,000 acres and then some. Maybe, in two or three years, the fishery will be what it was in the 1980s, if we can keep the lake healthy."Bruce Shupp (BASS National Conservation Director) and bass clubs really were instrumental in raising awareness and getting things done," Fox says."Today, we couldn't ask for anything better. We have a new water level strategy, and the South Florida Water Management District is being sensitive to the health and needs of the lake."We have a sliding schedule, with water let out as needed. In the past, they'd dump it out in big pulses that would hurt the estuaries. It's finally starting to sink in that everything down here is connected."Griffin, too, is happy about the lake's improved health. But he still worries about the organic muck that has built up over the years and turned the water to marsh."We need to clean up behind the shoal lines," he says. "That would improve places to spawn and triple the fishing areas. We've changed the lake so much that it won't happen by itself. It's going to have to be dredged and scraped by man."We're the headwaters of the Everglades," he continues. "It only makes sense to clean up here if we're going to clean up the Everglades. And let's set the benchmark by doing it right."Speaking for BASS and its nearly 600,000 members, Shupp has sent letters asking state and national leaders to push for restoration "that strongly advocates inclusion of angling and interpretive access … ."The Everglades is a great national treasure," he concludes. "People need contact to truly appreciate its value. Restoration plans must include human use in addition to ecological restoration."

 More informationTo learn more about the Everglades restoration plan, officially known as CERP (Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan), check out its Web site at www.evergladesplan.org.To find out how you can help save the canal bass fishery, contact Brad Arnold of SAFER at arnoldb@goalamo.com, or call him at 561-893-7603.To discover if restoration finally has begun at Lake Trafford, call Ann and Ski Olesky of Lake Trafford Marina at 239-657-2401, or send an e-mail to LakeTrafford@earthlink.net.

 

 

 

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