Local charter fisherman Captain Daniel Andrews has been fishing the waters of southwest Florida his entire life. A native of this area, it’s his business to know the intricacies of how local fish spawn and grow and what keeps them healthy – after all, it’s his livelihood. On the water every day, he’s noticed that health decline year after year – along with his business and that of others in the fishing industry. A couple of months ago, he decided he’d had enough.
“January was a major wake-up call for me,” Andrews told us. “The excessive water releases coming from Lake Okeechobee had caused my business to go down 50% as people were cancelling charters due to the nutrient-polluted water. Ever since south Florida was re-plumbed and the Army Corps of Engineers began sending water east and west instead of south, our estuaries have been being destroyed. I realized that those of us on the front lines – local fishermen – needed to do something.”
What Daniel did was to team up with three other local fishing guides – Josh Constantine, Blake Matterly and Chris Wittman. They, with the help of two trial attorneys – Leland Gavin and T.J Scheiner – created the 501(c)3 non-profit organization ‘Captains for Clean Water’.
“It started out with just the four of us guides talking about what we could do, so we met with Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson and explained to him what we were seeing,” Daniel told us. “We also spent several days in Tallahassee talking to our local legislators and talking to people in the service industry, people on the street, people pumping gas – everyone. What we realized is that there weren’t a lot of people who know what we know – the only real solution to this problem is to buy land in the Everglades Agricultural Areas and create a flowway south.”
Andrews said it’s not that his group are opposed to other solutions like the C-43 Reservoir, it’s just that they firmly believe the only thing that will ultimately fix the problem is to allow excess lake water to do what it naturally did – flow through the Everglades to Florida Bay.
“Even when the Corps fixes the dike and creates a new Lake Okeechobee Release Schedule (LORS), the focus will still be on sending the water east and west,” he said. “A new LORS will definitely give them more options, but since it rains faster than water evaporates it won’t solve the problem.”
“We have witnessed seagrass beds die off every year that coincide with the Lake Okeechobee releases,” Andrews continued. “Turtle grass beds, which are the foundation of our marine ecosystem, are threatened by long term exposure to low salinity waters. Also, the grass is unable to photosynthesize as very little light can penetrate the heavily stained water that is being released from lake Okeechobee. The long term damage for this to the environment will be catastrophic, and will take decades of proper management to repair.”
“As fishing guides, we have indefinitely lost our jobs,” Daniels continued. “Regular clients are calling concerned that their scheduled charters this spring will not be worth taking as fishing conditions have been poor. While our current clients are not pleased with conditions, we are getting little to no calls from potential new clients – which is unheard of for this time of year. We are personally feeling the effects of this before other businesses, as this is happening in our office. This is our only source of income. We rely on this ecosystem to feed our families and pay our bills. Other businesses that depend on tourism will be impacted this season. So many of us rely on these few months to save up enough to make it through the year.”
Daniel says the state has plenty of money with Amendment One funds to start buying the land to make this happen, it’s just not a popular topic amongst politicians in Tallahassee.
“It’s like Porter Goss said last week – we can walk and chew gum at the same time, it’s just that nobody wants to,” he said.
The message that Captains for Clean Water is spreading is not a new one, nor is it original. But the way the group has decided to get this accomplished is. Because of their connections in the estimated $8 billion south Florida fishing industry, the Captains have real money behind them that they are using to reach voters statewide with the idea being that lawmakers will be forced to listen if most of their constituents favor sending the water south.
“We have reached out and united charter captains on both coasts and the Keys (including at least two from Fort Myers Beach, Jon Fetter and Greg Stamper from Fish Tale Marina) – these are not people who normally get involved in stuff like this – plus we have a lot of connections with boat manufacturers, tackle companies – all businesses that have been affected,” Andrews said. “Once we started this, it’s really taken off.”
Captains for Clean Water put up their Facebook page and began their social media blitz on February 9th. Within 48 hours, they had a plane in the air shooting aerial video for their first Public Service Announcement, and their page has (at press time) just over 6,000 followers.
“Just last night at our meeting on Sanibel, we had over 100 people and we have released our business endorsement form – any local business can sign this form that they support Captains for Clean Water,” Daniel said. “It costs them nothing and they will get free advertising on our website. We’ve also drafted a petition, which normally I’m not a big fan of petitions, but our leaders in Tallahassee need to see that we’ve quantified how many supporters we have.”
The Captains group has also been given about $15,000 so far from local businesses, money they plan to use to keep spreading their message and gaining supporters.
“Besides that money, everything we’ve done so far is the six of us working 60 hours a week on our own dime,” Andrews said. “We’re meeting with all kinds of different groups – fishing clubs, Chambers of Commerce, Rotary clubs – whatever it takes to get our legislators to listen.”
At least one of them already has.
“At our Tuesday night meeting, Representative Heather Fitzenhagen – a Republican from Fort Myers – stood up and said she supports land acquisition to send the water south,” Daniel told us. “Hopefully by next year they all will.”
To find out more about Captains for Clean Water, visit their website at www.captainsforcleanwater.org.
Keri Hendry Weeg