While on a recent trip to the Florida Keys to fish for tarpon, my father and I were invited to a Bonefish and Tarpon Trust dinner at World Wide Sportsman in Islamorada. The event was meant to honor Capt. George Hommel Jr., a legendary Keys guide and former owner of World Wide Sportsman who had recently passed at a very old age. But the event was also to help fund the new Florida Keys Initiative, meant to discover the root causes of the disappearing Florida Keys Bonefish.
While at the dinner I was able to meet and talk to guides from the Keys and anglers from around the world who were deeply concerned about the future of the Florida Keys fishery, not just bonefish, but everything. From tarpon to snapper, from barracudas to lady fish things are changing, and not for the better. Sure you can still catch plenty of snapper and lady fish, but if you want a snook, bonefish or a redfish in the upper keys, good luck, you’ll need to run in the boat for awhile, and you still may not find them.
I have been fishing in the Florida Keys since I was a little kid, and I have seen a steady decline in the opportunities available. I caught my first Florida Keys bonefish on a live shrimp with Capt. Bob Rogers in John Pennecamp State Park in Key Largo when I was twelve years old. My family used to stay at the Cheeca Lodge in Islamorada, every morning as a little kid I used to eat breakfast and watch the skiffs pole the Cheeca Flat in front of the hotel. This does not happen anymore, because there are no more bonefish. My father has also been fishing the Keys since he was young and he remembers wading Anne’s beach for big bonefish and permit, not anymore, you would be lucky to see a barracuda; which are also disappearing.
We are not very sure what has caused the collapse of the Keys bonefish, but there are several possible factors, both natural and man-made issues that defiantly have hurt the population. The most noticeable possible issue is industrial netting in Cuba. Now you may be wondering how netting in Cuba affects bonefish in Biscayne bay and Islamorada, so here is a little scientific background information that may help you understand the larger picture.
Bonefish, tarpon, and permit, along with a host of other fish spawn off-shore. What this means is that they all leave en-mass, congregate in a yet to be discovered spot and spawn. Once they spawn, the adult fish return to their feeding grounds and resume life as normal. The eggs hatch off shore and the freshly born, barley devolved juvenile fish drift with the currents until they reach the mangrove estuaries of Florida, Cuba, Mexico, Belize, Honduras, and maybe even Costa Rica. Now not all these locations have an impact on the Florida Keys fish, in fact of the big three, bonefish, tarpon, and permit, the most migratory is the tarpon. There are actully groups of tarpon that visit the Chesapeake Bay each year, just to point out the migratory nature of these fish. But we are talking about the bonefish and as I had mentioned earlier, Cuba seems to have a great bearing on the fish. We do not know the exact correlation between the bonefish in the Keys and the fish in Cuba, but we do know that about fifteen years ago, there was massive netting projects going on in the north part of Cuba, gill nets that stretched miles across the flats and channels. From reports the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust has heard, thousands and thousand of bonefish, along with countless other species were netted and sold at market. At about this same time, the bonefish population suddenly plummeted in the Florida Keys. Now you may be wondering how nets on an island in the middle of the Caribbean Sea affect a different chain of islands in another part of the sea; remember, Cuba is only ninety miles from Key West, this is not that great of a distance as far as fish are concerned, so fish may actually be moving back and forth between the Keys and Cuba.
Unfortunately this is only one of a number of issues affecting bonefish in the Keys, I would say that this is the least of our concerns, since the nets have been outlawed and bonefish, tarpon and permit are gaining respect as money making recreational game fish in the country of Cuba.
I believe our greatest issues lie within the state of Florida, particularly within south Florida and the Everglades. The Everglades are essentially a huge, incredibly slow moving river draining all of south Florida. The health of the Everglades is essential to the health of Florida Bay and the Keys to the south. The state of the Glades is sad right now. Like any other river, when man blocks the flow, the river suffers greatly. The Everglades have been drained, chopped, burned and gridded with raised dikes to the point of strangulation. What this does is limit the flow of fresh water into the brackish estuaries where our beloved bonefish, tarpon and permit grow up as juveniles. The fresh water mixing with salt water in these mangrove estuaries is essential to the growth and development of these fish. Without this, the water is too salty and the fish may or may not return to these places; and if they do stay within these areas, they may not develop in the right ways, which brings me to another point: is the bonefish population collapsing due to pollution coming from Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, Homestead, Florida City and so on and so forth?
The pollution question certainly holds some weight. Studies have been done for years on other species of fish, mostly in freshwater environments showing a direct correlation between pollutants and fish reproduction. The question of pollution affecting the Keys bonefish is a relatively new one. The Bonefish and Tarpon Trust has been doing some research to see if high mercury levels have been affecting the reproductive process of the bonefish. This I believe could be the second worse possible issue facing the bonefish. And the pollution issue ties into the health of the Everglades and the amount of freshwater moving through the Glades ties directly to the over-development of south Florida.
Over the last thirty years or so, the human population of south Florida has increased exponentially. Along with an increased population comes an increase in wells, roads, drainage ponds and houses; all of which are irreversible due to political and human reasons.
Basically we need to figure this out and figure it out quickly. The Bonefish and Tarpon Trust are doing their part, but they need us to do our part, and yes that means money. Scientific research ain’t cheap, especially if it involves traveling to remote islands and other countries. So I am making a plea for you to donate as much as you can if you want to see bonefish back in the Florida Keys. This research most likely will give us information useful to fully understand bonefish, not just in the Keys, but all over the world.