Southwest Florida Rebounding from Red Tide; Charter Captains Cautiously Optimistic
Updated: May 18
A portion of this blog also appeared in the
Jennifer Huber of the Punta Gorda/Englewood Beach Visitor & Convention Bureau provided some images for this page
Scroll down for blog, interviews with our charter captains, an exclusive interview with Daniel Andrews, founder of Captains for Clean Water, and links to other information resources about the pressing water quality issues facing Florida
The annual trip to the ICAST sportfishing trade show in Orlando (sponsored by the American Sportfishing Association) usually offers a bonus opportunity to visit some great coastal Florida fishing destinations. My planned destination after this year's show was the Charlotte Harbor area, near Punta Gorda on the southwest Gulf of Mexico. I've fished inshore in this area several times over the years, usually having excellent success with big snook and abundant redfish, as well as the occasional speckled trout. But, I knew going in that opportunities would be diminished this year due to the devastating, prolonged red tide event that began in 2017 and continued through the fall of 2018 across much of that area.
Countless gamefish, as well as other species such as manatees and sea turtles, died. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission declared that all redfish, snook and trout caught in this area must be released as stocks rebuild. The policy will be reevaluated next year, according to state sources.
The issue of water quality, framed around a discussion on restoring South Florida's seagrass and coral, was front and center at an ICAST media luncheon put together by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. The four-person panel discussion, moderated by TRCP's Director of Marine Fisheries Chris Macaluso, covered a lot of ground, with presenters outlining the issues associated with increased salinity levels in Florida Bay, disease, and poor water quality, including the pumping of polluted water from massive Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, which run to the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts, respectively.
Nature never intended it to work that way. Okeechobee’s overflows naturally flowed south, towards the Everglades and Florida Bay. The massive Herbert Hoover dike, however, has prevented for decades this natural flow across lands now primarily used for agriculture, including corporate sugar cane farming. This disruption of natural water flows in the name of flood control is common throughout much of the Central and Eastern United States. Engineered flood control and water diversion systems that keep natural rivers and lakes from behaving the way nature intends help humans inhabit, farm or otherwise exploit lands that never would have or, perhaps, should have supported such activity. The broader ecological damage and economic loss can be staggering. For example, yearly losses to Louisiana’s amazing marshes and wetlands, according to a U.S. Geological Survey report, average 16.57 square miles per year, or a football field per hour. Most of this loss is attributed to human interference.
In Florida, during periods of heavy rain, the Army Corps of Engineers drains billions of gallons of Lake Okeechobee water daily, sending freshwater toward salty estuaries. This protects some farm fields, but the cost to sea grasses, oyster beds, fish, manatees and other coastal flora and fauna is dear. The water is laden with nitrogen, phosphorous and other pollutants, including cyanobacteria. Toxic algae blooms (especially blue-green algae caused by Cyanobacteria ) are harmful to humans as well as sea life and underwater habitat. Red tide is a saltwater phenomenon. Some researchers don't see a direct connection between nutrient runoff and lingering or amplified red tide. Others aren't so sure.
The problems in Florida Bay, part of the Everglades, have been well known for years. The dearth of freshwater flow and the resulting overly saline water creates a sort of "Dead Sea," destroying seagrass beds (vital habitat for many sportfish including redfish, snook, speckled trout, bonefish, permit, and many others).
The situation around Charlotte Harbor was dire last year, with red tide irritating human eyes and mucus glands, on top of killing countless fish and sea creatures. The region's economy, heavily dependent on tourism, suffered. Many small retailers were hurt. Proponents for change to Florida's water management practices declared that toxic waters scare away tourists, diminish real estate values, cripple fishing industries and more.
Congress passed in 2000 the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, but an apparent lack of political will stalled progress. Last year’s red tide and toxic algae events fueled the outrage necessary to force action. Within days of taking office last January, Governor Ron DeSantis signed an executive order directing $2.5 billion towards Everglades restoration and protection of water resources. The order also established a “Blue-Green Algae Task Force.” In June 2019, Florida and the U.S. Department of Transportation announced a $100-million commitment to elevate more than 6 miles of U.S. 41 (known as the Tamiami Trail) to allow some water to pass beneath the roadway and head toward the Everglades as nature intended. An earlier $90 million project elevated more than 3 miles of the highway. Eric Eikenberg, chief executive officer of the Everglades Foundation, said this seemingly small step has resulted in more water flowing to Florida Bay than has been seen in the entire last century. "It's like the drain plug has been pulled on the bathtub," he said.
Let's Go Fishing, Baby!
My fishing goal was to work in both nearshore and offshore trips, learning more about how the area is rebounding from last year's red tide and, hopefully, catch some big groupers and snappers. But, as my weather luck seems to be going lately, the wind had other ideas. The nearshore trip with Capt. Mike Slattery (palmislandoutfitters.com) last Saturday was scaled back to inshore, while a planned offshore excursion Sunday with Capt. Kaelin Olayer with Flyin’ Hawaiian Charters (captkaefishing.com) was dialed back once we got 9 miles out and realized seas would likely be too rough to fish at 25 to 30 miles out.
While we missed out on the best chances for bigger, deep-water fish, the Flyin’ Hawaiian crew put us on good numbers of smaller lane, mangrove and yellowtail snappers, Key West grunts, plus a handful of undersized red grouper and triggerfish, which quickly went back into the water. Olayer said one 15.75-inch grunt I caught was a new boat record for that species – it still became sandwich fare.
Our last stop was one that sometimes held bigger grouper. While we may have had a couple grouper bites, juvenile silky sharks were the primary species hitting the baits. Most quickly cut the line with their sharp teeth, but a couple made it to the boat for photos.
Captain Kae shares his story in short video
Slattery managed expectations on our Saturday t
rip, noting the diminished numbers of sportfish and pointing out that heavy rains recently silted up the usually clear inshore waters. We didn’t even try for redfish. My fishing partner Jason Mayhew caught the first snook, a small juvenile. Shortly after, I boated a slightly bigger snook, a little over 20 inches. That was it. The next stop was an abandoned railroad trestle in
Boca Grande where we caught about a dozen mangrove snappers. I brought a few fresh fillets to the nearby Leverocks restaurant where the chef blackened and fried them for my lunch.
Both Slattery and Olayer note that full recovery of inshore fishing in this beautiful, remarkable area likely will take a few years. Needed are a little luck with the weather, meaning minimal storms and a return to average rainfall levels, and human commitment, for human activity is blamed for many of the difficulties facing this fishery.
Capt. Mike Slattery offers his thoughts on fishery rehabilitation
Florida has many spots on both coasts where an angler can fish, not to mention the Panhandle and the Keys. The Gulf Coast areas hit hardest by last year's red tide are still productive. Nearshore and offshore fishing can still yield an ice chest full of delicious saltwater fish. Inshore sportfish stocks around southwest Florida are recovering and, for me anyways, I would pass on targeting inshore species for the time being, except for fish such as mangrove snapper. While catching a snook or redfish is fun, why risk a bad hookup that injures a fish and could result in delayed mortality? I'd like to see a return to healthy, bountiful stocks of redfish and snook and a situation where one doesn't have to feel guilty about taking a couple fish for the dinner table. Redfish, after all, are one of the finest eating species.
The individual entrepreneur guides, restaurants, marinas and more still need our business. The year 2018 was a financial disaster for many and, for the area to fully rebound, visitors need to keep coming. As Slattery notes in his interview, the area around Charlotte Harbor, while growing like the rest of Florida, still represents some of the best opportunities to experience a taste of "Old Florida," with unspoiled mangrove-laden channels and pockets of water frontage not covered in high-rise condominiums.
And, if like me, you value the opportunity to fish in Florida and enjoy the beautiful, bountiful waters that have always represented the Sunshine State, you can’t sit on your hands and wait for someone else to do something. Just as the water quality of my own Chesapeake Bay region represents a national interest, so does the situation in Florida. Floridians need the nation behind them. The political heat needs to remain constant, even when dead fish aren’t floating near the beaches.
Links and Resources
"Thousands of sea creatures now litter many of southern Florida’s typically picturesque beaches. Most are fish—mullet fish, catfish, pufferfish, snook, trout, grunt, and even the massive goliath grouper. But other creatures are also washing ashore—crabs, eels, manatees, dolphins, turtles, and more. It's a wildlife massacre of massive proportions. And the cause of both the deaths and toxic, stinging fumes is a bloom of harmful algae that scientists say is the region’s worst in over a decade..."
From CCA Florida newsroom
Exclusive Interview with Daniel Andrews, founder of Captains for Clean Water
Information sources include the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Department of Health
Your one-stop shop for information about visiting the area
The problem isn't just in Florida... as this U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet points out
Bay restoration has been ongoing for decades
Bonus Restaurant/Lodging Tip
If you are fortunate enough to ever make it to Punta Gorda and Charlotte Harbor for a little fishing or vacationing, stay at the Four Points by Sheraton Punta Gorda Waterside, right alongside the U.S. 41 bridge. Great rooms and fabulous tiki bar with live music just a few hundred feet away along the water. And, check out Peace River Seafood. Our small group ate there and had platters of delicious seafood. Check out the photos!