Captains For Clean Water: These Anglers Are Saving the Everglades
Yet in recent years, massive seagrass die-offs and growing red tides have threatened the region’s fragile ecosystem, along with the fish that inhabit it, leading a group of local anglers to get involved.
Helmed by boat captains and saltwater anglers, Captains For Clean Water (CFCW) has been racking up environmental wins as the nonprofit organization pushes Congress and other governing bodies for better water management protection—even as the well-funded sugar industry actively works to impede progress.
Among the most notable achievements the group has contributed to is the establishment of the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM). This new plan, which is set to take effect later this year, dictates how Lake Okeechobee water is managed and will balance agricultural needs with the health of the estuaries, reducing damaging discharges by 37% and sending significantly higher volumes of water south to the Everglades in the dry season.
“The concept behind this new plan is shared adversity,” explains CFCW cofounder Capt. Chris Wittman. “Before, the former plan had perfect conditions for the sugar industry and very imperfect conditions for everybody else.
“This new plan isn’t perfect for anyone, but it’s a huge improvement. We’re taking steps in the right direction.”
“The Everglades depends on water,” Wittman says. “It needs water flowing to hydrate the interior, to keep the peat soils and the swamps wet, to replenish the drinking water aquifer, and balance salinities in the estuary.”
When the water in the Florida Bay becomes too salty, it makes it difficult for the seagrass to grow. In fact, in 2015 the water became so hypersaline (three times saltier than the Gulf of Mexico) that 50,000 acres of seagrass died off in one massive event.
The effect on habitat and wildlife has been grave, particularly for young tarpon, snook, and other fish that depend on brackish water as juveniles. The decline in fish populations has impacted anglers and their livelihoods as well.
Wittman says it's been hard to watch.
“The Everglades is where saltwater sight fishing was born,” he says. “It's where it was created—sight fishing for your target in crystal clear water with lush turtle grass. Now that water is often muddy and there’s no grass at all.”
The juvenile fish have nowhere to hide, so predation increases. What’s more, as the dead grass sheds and decomposes, it releases nutrients into the water that feed algae blooms and makes them more destructive.
As the blooms migrate with the wind and tides, they choke out sunlight in other areas and cause further seagrass loss there. Soon the migratory birds stop coming and the downward spiral continues.
“The birds can’t eat,” he says. “Everything depends on the seagrass to live. They know instinctively there's no food, so you see much lower recruitment and nesting of migratory birds and waterfowl. The entire ecosystem is out of balance.
“It's a cycle of decline.”
“You're adding so much freshwater there,” he says, “it turns a saltwater fishery fresh, which has the exact same impact—water that’s too fresh kills the seagrass too, kills the oyster bars.”
The water being discharged from Lake Okeechobee to the coasts is often nutrient loaded, which can fuel harmful algal blooms that threaten the health of humans and marine life.
There’s also a global impact that occurs from all of the carbon emissions. When peat soil is hydrated, Wittman explains, it's a massive carbon sink. But when it dries out, it begins to emit carbon rather than soak it up.
“So globally, you start to turn one of the largest carbon sinks in North America into something that's releasing carbon into the atmosphere.”
The new management plan will help mitigate these effects by reducing the harmful discharges to the coasts and restoring the flow of much-needed water south to the Everglades and Florida Bay.
The project involves the development of a massive 16,000-acre water reservoir that will be able to store water from Lake Okeechobee and clean it before it gets released.
“You dump the extra water from the lake into a massive reservoir that’s larger than the size of Manhattan,” explains Wittman. “You run that water through a stormwater treatment area, a man-made wetland filter marsh.
“The plants within that wetland take the nutrients out of the water and it goes out the other side of it clean.”
It’s the project with the “biggest ROI” by far, according to Wittman, yet it’s also the one that’s faced the most adversity from special interests.
When the bill was first introduced that would authorize the planning and construction of the reservoir (Florida Senate Bill 10), for example, he says that nobody expected it to pass.
“Everybody said it was dead on arrival,” Wittman recalls. “The sugar industry employs the largest lobbying force in the state—we were told it wasn't going to happen. But, together with our partners, we were able to put such a spotlight on it, create so much public awareness, that it had to pass.”
Yet the grassroots conservation organization was able to apply enough pressure via public awareness campaigns that the governing board was forced to resign.
“That’s never happened before,” Wittman says. “Those are two-year staggered terms, so there's never a full change of the board. It was a huge win.”
“We activated our boots on the ground, our network of partners, and three days later, dozens of fishing guides and business owners showed up in Tallahassee. We testified before the committee.
“This bill was a death threat to everything we'd accomplished in the past six years.
“Over the next 55 days, we had over 13 million people engage with the campaign. Fifty thousand people took action, contacted legislators.”
As a result of the efforts, he says, the governor vetoed the bill. Construction on the filter marsh began last year and is scheduled to be done this year.
“The project that we were told would never happen, would get delayed and tied up in lawsuits—that reservoir broke ground last month,” Wittman exclaims.
The reservoir project is slated to be complete by 2030.
The group has also benefited from athletes and celebrities who’ve gotten involved. Columbia Sportswear ambassador and country music singer Luke Combs, for example, held a virtual concert in 2020 as a benefit, and fly-fishing tournament athlete Wesley Locke has been a spokeswoman for the cause.
“Everglades restoration is a marathon, it's not a sprint,” says Wittman. “It's the largest ecosystem restoration project ever undertaken in the world, anywhere in history. That's not something that happens overnight. These are massive projects.
“But these were three absolutely massive wins—LOSOM, the reservoir, and killing Senate Bill 2508. And they're the result of people using their voices in our industry, and our partners like Columbia using their reach as extensions of our microphone.”
“The Everglades is a national treasure. It's a world heritage site. People travel from all over the world to fish for tarpon in Florida. As anglers, we have to care [globally]. I've never been to the Amazon, but I care about what happens to it as an angler. I don't go to Yellowstone all the time, but I care about what happens to it. Once you lose these places, you don't get them back.
“As outdoorsmen and -women, we have an interest in saving the ecosystems that drive our businesses and our hobbies. We have an inherent appreciation for the value of our special outdoor places, and a responsibility to protect them.”