Like the fictional hero who patrols and protects the mythical kingdom of Atlantis, Lee County has its own group of water warriors who patrol and protect the offshore coasts of Paradise!
The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission is a statewide agency of roughly 2,000 employees. “Out of this total, the Lee County Field Office has less than 20 people,” says Officer Stuart Stoede while on a recent patrol on a chilly morning. “We always have someone out on the water, 7-days-a-week, and often in plainclothes. What is so intriguing is there is never a typical day. What starts out as simple boating safety checks can quickly switch into a search-&-rescue mission or a manatee or dolphin rescue. We never do the same thing from one day to the next.”
Officer Stoede notes that Lee’s County’s substantial coastline means most of its local personnel concentrate on water issues. “Two-thirds of my coworkers are aquatic people, like me. Inland counties are the reverse, with more game warden-type occupations.” Patrols loop from the Caloosahatchee River to the north to Collier County to the south. “Florida jurisdiction goes out nine miles before becoming Federal territory,” Office Stoede points out. “This means the United States government deputizes Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission officers as well, as under extreme emergencies we go out 40 or more miles and require the legal authority.”
While excitement punctuates the mundane, it is the routine that occupies the most time, especially boating safety checks of area watercraft. “Some stand out on their own,” explains Officer Stoede. “When you see a small boat overloaded with 15 people, none of whom have lifejackets, you make the stop for their safety. Most, however, are local or tourist boaters just out to fish or pleasure-cruise.”
Officer Stoede slowly and calmly approaches these vessels, and makes a friendly callout to the captain that he is pulling aside. Once onboard, he ensures each craft has a functional fire extinguisher, enough lifejackets for everyone, a throw cushion or ring, and a noise-making device. He inspects the live well and cooler to ensure compliance, and states that alcohol on a boat is not illegal. “There is a big difference between having a 6-pack in your cooler and being intoxicated behind the wheel. Drunk boating in our water is not as big an issue as some assume.”
As important as the safety check is, it is the opportunity to meet, speak with, and often get to know the captains that is indispensable. “Most are happy to see me, although it may take a couple seconds to get over the initial shock once I make my callout,” the officer explains. “I know the regulars, almost as much by their boats as by their faces, and they recognize me as this is my patrol area. You know fast when someone is a tourist. If every other boater is bundled up and one goes past full of shirtless people in bathing suits, you can bet they are from up north!”
A member of the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission for six years, Officer Stoede first attempted to join the organization several years prior to that, but that was during the depths of the Great Recession. Due to budgetary constraints and hiring freezes, his first few applications expired and he had to begin all over. “Today is completely different,” he says. “Now you can often go from applying to hiring in 6 to 8 months.” He is a fully trained and accredited police officer, graduating from the Tallahassee Academy and then the Wildlife and Conservation Commission program. “We are fortunate,” he notes, “that in our situation we rarely encounter the domestic disturbance calls that so frustrate police officers on-land. We almost never experience what many colleagues call the worst part of their job.”
Like many Lee County residents, Officer Stoede relocated here, in his case from Virginia. “It happened to me the way it does to a lot of people – I took a Spring Break vacation here when I was younger and became hooked!” He earned his degree in Environmental Science, and began working with the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission as a consultant until becoming an employee. “This is a really cool job that became a really cool career, and one I have yet to regret.” Stoede says that when he graduated from the academy, students received the reward of picking the county of their employment by how well they placed in their class: “I was #1 and chose Lee County,” he says with obvious pride! The rules are different now, with emphasis on placing people near their home areas, or in regions that badly need their expertise.
In addition to his daily and public relations duties, Officer Stoede is the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission recruiter for Charlotte, Collier and Lee Counties. He will speak at every Collier County high school during February, while coordinating its greater community outreach program geared toward area youth. “Police today get a bad rap: it is essential we reach children now while they are young, so they learn early on that we really are the good guys.” His strongest recruiting, though, occurs on his patrols and the resulting interaction with the general public. “You do your job in a personable and professional manner, and regulars and tourists alike get to know you as a human being. That is the best way to represent the commission, and to attract new and quality applicants. That is how it happened for me, and I hope I pass that passion along to others.”
While pleased that recent coworkers do not endure the time and delays he encountered to begin their careers, he finds it occasionally frustrating to hear gripes about the budget, work hours, or similar complaints about the commission, and hopes newer colleagues do not lose sight of everything that makes what they do great. “As the regional recruiter, as well as someone who had other jobs prior to joining the commission, I explain how good we have it – to be driving a boat around all day in one of the most beautiful places on the planet. If they would ever lay tile on their knees or do construction in 95-degree heat for a year, they would better appreciate the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.” Stoede describes it as “a big agency with plenty of specialization, so you can take your career anywhere you want.” For example, he is now learning tactical vessel and marine technical courses, to become certified to teach these to other agencies.
While the vast amount of people he encounters on patrol are law-abiding, or tourists and seasonal residents who innocently do not know our boating regulations, Officer Stoede acknowledges there are occasionally a few bad apples. “Spring Break still brings problems, when especially younger people end up absolutely hammered on their boats, and that level of alcohol abuse brings other issues. We work long hours to catch the basic crook, especially the late-night theft crowd. Finally there are the resource violators, who either cannot or will not comply with our restrictions. Manatee zone violations are an excellent example – some people just do not want to go slow. We usually issue warnings first, then tickets. It is generally a small percentage of water abusers who occupy the largest amount of our time.”
When reflecting on career highs-&-lows to date, Office Stoede is extraordinarily positive. “Of course there is the occasional bad or cold weather snap, and every so often you encounter that idiot boater who takes their and your life in their hands, even 20 miles or more offshore, but that is all a part of the job. The toughest by far is the time away from my young family. A cop job is shift work, including nights, weekends, and holidays, so we do not spend as much time with our families as in a more traditional occupation.”
Pluses abound for Officer Stoede: “Some find it a challenge to balance the needs of the environmentalists versus the sportsmen, but I like bringing the two sides together. Sometimes it seems like half the people want us to close all the waterways and convert them into pristine nature preserves, while others want it to be a totally unregulated watery playground. For the most part, the two are not as far apart as many think, and I enjoy working with everyone.”
Unique Office View
A huge advantage is his natural surroundings. While cruising near Lover’s Key State Park, he marvels that “nobody has an office view like mine!” He loves being on the water all day, almost every day. An essential component is the great freedom afforded by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission structure. “I do not have a supervisor constantly breathing down my neck. I know my job, and continue to receive excellent training, then the commission allows me to put these skills to use in the best possible way. I may see my lieutenant once-a-week, and this is ideal for a self-motivator like me.”
To explore a career with or for additional information about the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, contact the local field office at 239-332-6972, visit them at 2423 Edwards Drive, Fort Myers, 33901 or go to their website at www.myfwc.com. The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission: Patrol, Protect, Preserve!