The netters work the whole park. Captain Andy McLean, a sport-fishing guide out of Everglades City west of the park, has kept catch records for more than a quarter of a century. From 1957 to 1966 his clients averaged 5.9 snook per day. From 1967 to 1976 the take was 2.7, and McLean says the past two seasons have been disastrous—"hardly worth going out for snook."
Last February the guides' association circulated a petition asking for a moratorium on netting in the park until a thorough study of the fishery could be made. They got 4,700 signatures in a few days and presented the petition to Good at an emotion-charged meeting at Islamorada's Cheeca Lodge. Good and Davis ultimately agreed to undertake a Florida Bay fishery management assessement (in other words, a hard look at the problem) and in August, Good declared a temporary moratorium on the issuance of new netting permits. For netters who had licenses, it was business as usual. The guides were angry at the half-measure, and Brown wrote a letter to Good saying, "To be completely honest with you. we would have much preferred to see a moratorium placed on all netting in the park until the assessment is complete, due to, as you mentioned, 'the seriousness of the situation.' "
Davis, however, feels that the netting is only a minor factor, if any. He believes the main problem is increased salinity. "The assessment isn't complete yet," he says, "but I don't think it will show that mullet are being overharvested. Why, at the time that the mullet take has been declining, the commercial catch of pompano within the park boundaries has risen from 100 pounds in 1973 to 17,000 pounds last year." Of course pompano are fished very differently from mullet, on the far offshore banks of the park. To be sure, the mullet catch is affected by market prices as well as abundance or scarcity of the fish. When mullet are present in great numbers, many commercial fishermen stay home rather than burn costly gas for fish that could bring less than 1� per pound. Still, the profile of the mullet catch over the past three years has been steeply downward despite the fact that more men are netting them than ever before.
The assessment should be complete by January, at which time Good will make his recommendations regarding commercial and sport fishing in the park. Public hearings will be held, and Brown and the guides' association, as well as Pate and the EPA, plan to be on hand and vociferous.
Meanwhile, our angling in Madeira Bay—once one of the most productive "hot spots" in the area—was proving as dismal as had been predicted. A few sea trout, a sheepshead, a small jack crevalle and one tiny tarpon were all that responded to our lures. Not a single red-fish was to be seen, much less hooked.
"Redfish have always been our meat and potatoes," said Ruoff. "Let's face it, there's not too many anglers who want to put in the hard work and long days required to catch bonefish and tarpon, and then when you've caught them, you can't eat them. Most of the fishermen who hire us want to bring something home with them, something for the freezer. That means reds and trout."
Redfish and sea trout are unprotected by the Florida Fish and Game Commission, and no daily catch limits are placed on them. The park defers to the state of Florida on such matters. The guides' association and the EPA would like to put a 10-a-day limit on trout and a four-a-day limit on redfish. In fact, for the past two years the guides have imposed that limit on themselves and their clients. EPA members, being saltwater fly-fishermen in the main, release almost all of their fish routinely, keeping only those that might qualify for a record. Once again, Good and Davis aren't sure that a bag limit would help, and in any event they say their hands are tied: it's up to the state to declare these species game fish and impose take limits.
"We're ready to put up with anything positive that the park proposes," said Brown that evening over a cold beer at Papa Joe's in Islamorada. "If they want to put big chunks of the park off limits for sport as well as for commercial fishing, we'll go along with it."
We sat quietly for a while, letting the beer cut the day's salt from our throats, listening to the nearing thunder rumble over the whine of the jukebox. Little Things Mean a Lot. On the back wall, a mounted tarpon that must have gone close to 200 pounds in life arched motionless, its scales like $20 gold pieces in the fading light.
"Mainly, though, something has to be done about those salinity levels," said Brown. "Something that will put the fresh water back where nature intended it—into the nurseries of Florida Bay. Without that, everything else is just a holding action, a temporary stopgap. This is a situation unlike any elsewhere in the world. It's not like some salmon river that's been dammed and can be rigged out with fish ladders, or even a body of water with industrial pollution problems. This is a whole vast ecosystem that covers the entire southern tip of a growing state." He shook his head. "It would be a damn shame to see it destroyed."