Not wanting to get zoned out

Scars from boat propellers are shown in the shallows of Florida Bay. Photo courtesty National Park Service

Boaters and fishermen around South Florida are revved up over a National Park Service proposal to shut them out of huge swaths of Florida Bay in Everglades National Park.

Park officials floated a plan to ban boats larger than 24 feet and stop people from using internal combustion engines in three feet of water or less. The officials say the proposed closure is "unprecedented," and claim these de facto no motor zones would help them protect the sea grasses torn up when boaters run aground or skim the grass beds. Electric motors and poling with outboards killed and tilted up would be allowed.

"I'm a kayaker, and even I think it's wrong," said Jeff Barrow, an avid angler who lives on Florida Bay in Tavernier, Fla. "There are enough rules in the park. They just need to enforce them."

Park planner Fred Herling said he's gotten an earful of comments like that at a number of public hearings around South Florida.

"The park's goal is to get the best ideas and thinking regarding the long-term management of the park, as this kind of planning effort happens only ever 20 to 30 years," Herling said.

The end product, called a General Management Plan, could be completed by a closed-door planning committee by summer 2008. Freshwater bass fishing and bass tournaments in the Everglades would not be hit by any of the proposals.

Park officials estimate that 10,000 acres of grass flats a year are destroyed by prop scarring and groundings, although they concede that no extensive park study has been done. They also see the boating restrictions as a way to prevent boaters from disturbing endangered birds that nest in the uninhabited islands, also called keys.

The park made public four proposals earlier this year, and one, called Alternative D, lit a fire underneath folks from Chokoloskee on the southwest side of the state to Key Largo in the east.

One restriction seemed to really touch off fireworks from the people who live and work in the areas around the 1.5-million-acre national park: banning outboards in a huge zone, including one that stretches for more than 30 miles.
While boats would be allowed to troll or pole, the no motor zone would effectively cut off access to larger parts of the park. If accepted in its present state, this could be the largest no motor zone in the world.

Chris Horton, conservation director for B.A.S.S., stands with the anglers and boaters who say a mass closure is not the answer to protect the Everglades. Closing certain areas to safeguard the environment or other reasons could be acceptable. But some access has to be there, he says.

"To do something that substantial, there has to be some very hard evidence that the boats are doing this kind of damage on a large scale," says Horton, who has been following the park's moves since the four alternatives were revealed. "I haven't seen that kind of data to justify it."

But Horton also said there is a bigger picture here. It's a concern that hits right to the heart of boaters be they bonefish-on-fly fanatics in Florida, largemouth addicts in Arizona or trout bums in Montana.

Local, state and federal laws are steadily encroaching on anglers' rights to access their favorite waters, he says.
In Louisiana, a U.S. district court judge ruled that there is nothing in the law saying that people have a right to hunt or fish in state waters.

"Access to millions of acres of lakes, rivers and backwaters are at stake in this case," Horton said. "Anglers might just find one day that they can't fish their favorite waters."

That case could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Cooler heads prevailed in a dispute over access on Arkansas and Missouri reservoirs recently. B.A.S.S., which is owned by ESPN, teamed up with local anglers to fight a move by marina owners who wanted to ban all fishing anywhere near their docks. A compromise would restrict fishing from standing vessels in a few areas, like fuel docks, but allow fishing everywhere else.

A compromise is what Keys anglers and guides are hoping for, too.

Sandy Moret, famous for catching permit on fly as much as he is for heading a Keys guides' group called the Don Hawley Foundation, says he thinks the park will take the reams of comments into consideration, and reveal a new, compromise alternative.

"I believe they'll do the right thing," said Moret, who with a number of guides and Keys fisherman got together and created their own proposal, called Alternative E.

Park officials consider Alternative E a well thought approach and praised what they called the "citizens' initiative."
It is modeled on the other proposals but cuts out what Moret called "the stupid things" in the park's proposals and puts in what would work to protect the environment and boaters' access.

Alternative E, which is backed by various Keys groups and chambers of commerce around the Everglades, would restrict vessels in some areas from using combustible engines in water less two feet rather than three feet. It throws out the large-vessel ban, but encourages the park to install better markers to help keep boats in proper areas and in appropriate depths.

The proposal also calls for a mandatory boater education permit. Anyone who wants to operate a boat in the Everglades would have to pass a classroom or Internet course to demonstrate bay navigation competency.

"Nobody wants anyone running over the flats,"said Moret, who isn't hesitant to call the pristine waters "paradise."

"Everyone knows that the real threat to our sea grasses is water quality and quantity. But we do have to stop prop scarring," he says. "It happens most often when channels are not properly marked."

Once the grass is gone, it takes years for new grasses to take their place, if it replenishes at all, says David Hallac, the park's chief biologist.

The submerged grasses, like salinity-tolerant turtle grass, are important as fish nurseries. They filter sediment that flows from mainland rivers, South Florida industry and fertilizer runoff from tomato farms and sugar fields to the north and east of the park.

Florida Bay is a complex ecosystem., a 500,000-acre mix of shallow saltwater flats, meandering banks and uninhabited mangrove islands. It's the perfect place for catching redfish, tarpon, snook and bonefish. Guides motor into the bay every day on flats skiffs. They cruise to certain banks or flats, tilt up their outboards and pole anglers in skinny waters in pursuit of world-record game fish.

With the ban like the one proposed, the guides and anglers could still fish the fringes. But one zone is an oval about 30 miles across and 20 miles; that would effectively put hundreds if not thousands of acres of world-class saltwater game fish habitat out of reach.

This picture-postcard bay at the southern end of the grassy Everglades has a 50-year history associated with angling luminaries like Zane Grey, who fished nearby channels for 200-plus-pound tarpon. Movie stars like Jimmy Stewart caught bonefish in the 1940s with guide Jimmie Albright, for whom the Albright Hitch fishing knot is named. President George H. Bush fished the area several times in the 1980s and 1990s. The fishing commander-in-chief always traveled with an flotilla of Secret Service agents in nearby flats skiffs.

Fishing history is still being written, and filmed. Dozens of TV fishing shows are filmed within in park boundaries every year. They bring the legendary fishing action to armchair anglers the world over.

One of those TV personalities is Capt. Rich Tudor. He is a longtime Keys fishing guide and host of "The Sufix Saltwater Game," seen on ESPN2 on Sunday mornings. Tudor also fishes redfish tournaments all over the south.

Compared to other places on the tournament circuit, like Alabama, Texas and Louisiana, the Everglades gets almost no boating pressure, he says. So why restrict boaters who know how to navigate the bay?

"We are so blessed with that park," the guide says. "I fish it every day, and 90 percent of the time I never see another boat."

Tudor claims a more pressing environmental concern that goes almost ignored is a "disgusting" algae bloom in the middle of the bay. In the 1990s, huge algae blooms grew in the bay mostly in the summers, and then retreated. The current bloom is about 20 miles long and just gets bigger, Tudor says.

"They're talking about prop scarring. Ninety-nine percent of the Everglades is pristine with no scars," Tudor said. "But now you can't see two inches into the water because of this bloom. That's what the biologists should be spending their time on."

Tudor, who grew up just east of the Everglades in Miami, loves the bay and the Everglades. He knows the flats, channels and habits of the game fish like few others.

He recently spent a weekend fishing a Keys tournament called the Redghost Stalk out of Islamorada. The burly guide spent two days on a stern-mounted poling platform and searched constantly for redfish and bonefish on the shallow-water flats of the Everglades.

A 13-year-old local boy with a fishing rod stood on the bow casting platform straining his eyes to see a tail or a wake before the veteran guide did. The boy, Charlie Hertel, ended up catching six redfish and two bonefish. The bonefish were his first. All were caught and released.

The take was enough to win third place.

"It's a beautiful place, the Everglades," Tudor said. "I just hope they do the right thing."