Finally, far down
a palm-lined canal where expensive cabin cruisers lay moored beside neatly
mowed lawns, we found a school of flipping mullet. Picariello picked up his
cast net, crouched, then threw. The web splashed down and yielded a dozen fat,
strong fish—a trip's worth of bait for a tarpon captain and his charter.
These devices—big cages of heavy-gauge vinyl-coated wire baited with chunks of
"trash" fish—have become increasingly popular among commercial
fishermen. Their use in state waters is forbidden under Florida law. Yet Rode
and I saw many, marked by their floats, within the state's three-mile limit off
Marathon. Captain Doug Smith of the marine patrol on Marathon says that some
commercial fishermen set "trotlines" of illegal fish traps without
using telltale floats to mark their positions. "They use a loran [a
navigational device that can establish an accurate fix on a boat's position by
using radio pulses from bases on shore] and, if there's no marine patrol boat
in sight, drop their traps in a plotted line," he said.
enough, but even with all that electronic assistance, the fishermen inevitably
lose a few of the traps. They can break loose in storms, strong currents can
sweep them hundreds of yards away, or mooring lines can simply get old and
separate. "A trap like that lying on the bottom becomes a perpetual killing
machine," Mike Long of the marine patrol told us. "Each fish that
enters it eventually dies and serves as bait for more fish. On and on."
the hunt for the succulent pink tablefare grows more and more intense, so too
does the damage to the bottom across which shrimp boats deploy their heavy
nets. "They won't drag across a rugged bottom," Rode said,
"anything with outcroppings of rock or coral or old wrecks. That rips their
nets. They prefer to drag on open stretches. Unfortunately, that's where the
turtle grass grows—Thalassia testudinum. Ecologically, it's the most productive
plant in these waters, the basis of the marine ecosystem. Destroy it and you're
destroying the entire food chain from the bottom up."
We stopped astern
a shrimper that was drying its nets one morning offshore from Marathon. A
crewman, on watch while his shipmates slept, gave us a bucket of
"cullin's" from the boat's trash barrels—unsalable or at least
unsortable leavings from the previous night's drags. Rode went through the
trash with a practiced eye. In addition to plenty of small but perfectly edible
shrimp, he found flounder, squirrel fish, squid, lizard fish, cigar minnows,
cowfish, rock shrimp ("They used to be called 'mud suckers' until some
smart guy in the shrimp business changed their name," Rode said), and
plenty of ripped-up turtle grass. "This gives you an idea of what they're
doing," Rode concluded. "Look at all the things that live on the bottom
and die when the shrimpers come through. And you can't really blame the
shrimpers, can you? They got to feed their families. Too damned many people in
it, is all."
?Coral and conch
hunters. Running past literally hundreds of illegal crab and crawfish pots (the
season for stone crabs and the clawless Florida lobster had ended two weeks
earlier), we stopped near Sombrero Light, which is built on what was once a
splendid coral reef. Though the wind was blowing better than 15 knots, making
for tough snorkeling, half a dozen dive boats lay at anchor over the reef. The
reef itself was marred by dozens of bare white blotches of dead coral, as if a
sort of submarine leprosy were at work on the bottom. A huge brain coral the
size of a Volkswagen Beetle stood dead on its head.
"I used to
dive on this reef a lot when I was a kid," Rode said. "Then, after
about 10 years away from it, I came back. What I saw haunted me—it haunts me
still. The destruction. The white spots are from anchors hitting and ripping
and killing the coral or from tourists picking the stuff for their living
rooms—even though it's against the law. There used to be purple sea fans all
over the place here. Not anymore. All gone north with the tourists. That brain
coral was overturned by some diver with a crowbar, looking for cowries
underneath it, probably. He couldn't have been dumb enough to think he could
get it up to the boat and ship it home. Or could he?"
Farther to the
east we stopped at a shoal covered with turtle grass. The water was no more
than eight feet deep—easy even for novice divers. Hidden among the waving grass
were hundreds of big shells—queen and horse conchs, triton trumpets and
cowries. The live ones were dark, but there were many dead shells, too, winking
pale in the aqueous light. "Queen conchs are protected by law," Rode
said, "but they take them anyway, along with the unprotected horse conchs.
Think they'll make some conch salad. But when it comes to removing the animal
and cleaning it, they give up. You have to know where to chip into the shell or
you'll never pry the meat out. So they just throw them back. Dead." Rode
turned away in disgust.
It would be so
easy, he argued, for the commercial dive shops on Marathon and the other Keys
to prevent at least the coral damage by buoying their dive sites so that their
anchors don't rip up and kill the very stuff their livelihood depends upon.
"Half a day's work to put anchor buoys on all of Sombrero Reef," he
said. "It would make life easier for them just from the boating
standpoint—no lost anchors. As for the conchs, I don't know the answer. There
are only 28 marine patrol officers in the entire Keys—2,500 square miles."
Indeed, we didn't see a single marine patrol boat in three days of dawn-to-dusk
running in Marathon waters.
We never did get
a positive identification on the tarpon buyer who set us off on this depressing
odyssey—only that he was rumored to be in the Keys to shoot a video about
fishing for sharks. For some odd reason—perhaps to make an already-macho sport
look even more so—he had hit on the idea of using chunks of shiny dead tarpon
as shark bait. At first, our informants told us, he tried to catch enough
tarpon by himself to provide the bait. When that didn't work, he reportedly
tried to "long-line" for his bait—running half a mile or more of line,
suspended by floats on the surface, from which dropped shorter lines baited