Three letters proved too controversial in Dusty May’s effort to protect St. Joseph Bay.
Men and women who make their living on the bay came out in numbers for last week’s regular bi-monthly meeting of the Port St. Joe City Commission to protest a letter that could – could – lead to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission playing a role in the effort May was proposing.
May, a resident of Port St. Joe who spends much time on the bay approached commissioners earlier this month with a multi-prong plan to save St. Joseph Bay and particularly boat scarring of valuable seagrass beds.
Commissioners gave their blessing to proceed while maintaining communication on steps taken, but momentum stopped with a letter May was proposing to send to a high-ranking FWC officer.
The letter attempts to begin at least a dialogue with the agency on enforcing existing laws pertaining to the destruction of seagrass beds.
But any contact with the FWC was a step too far for fishermen who, several mentioned, have long had a “bitter taste” about how the state agency charged with protection and safety on the waterways does its job.
“Once you get the FWC in here they have legislative authority and you can open a can of worms you can’t close,” said Mark Moore.
Further, several fishermen wondered whether addressing boat scarring would even be a fix for the serious degrading of seagrass beds which has occurred over the past several years.
Some pointed directly to dispersant used by BP following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 while others noted the decline of seagrass across the region which has been identified by some experts as a “wasting disease.”
And one fisherman noted flooding which has occurred the past three years and the amount of chemicals, fertilizers and the like, which are brought into the bay from stormwater runoff.
“The grass is gone,” said Eckley Sanders. “Prop scars probably won’t matter. Over the last three years flood waters have been bringing all kind of chemicals into the bay.
Buddy Wood of Wood’s Fisheries blamed BP and dispersant, saying, “Half the grass in the bay is dead. Once you get the FWC in here you can’t stop (what they do).”
May countered that the fear should be an entity beyond the FWC, such as the Pew Foundation or the federal government which has severely limited fishing seasons that locals should be concerned about.
He said if the bay grass beds continue to decline local stakeholders may have no say in the future and access to the bay.
“The last thing I want to see done is to have the Pew Fund or somebody else come in here and limit our access,” May said. “My intent was to help the city by being proactive.
“If we don’t protect our bay from people who are damaging our habitat we are going to be in trouble.”
May said the majority of culprits are visitors who are “renting” the bay for their vacation. Beyond a lack of knowledge about channels and protecting the seagrass, many just “don’t care.”
“I didn’t think anything (I proposed) was controversial,” May said. “I want it to stay open so we can all enjoy it. And I want it to be healthy.”
Beyond the contact with the FWC exploring enforcement of existing rules about grass destruction, May’s initiative included educational material at boat ramps and launches, billboards and signs as well as seeking funding to mark the existing channels.
As several mentioned last week, the old buoy system marking the channels worked to reduce seagrass destruction.
“We all want conservation,” said Commissioner Phil McCroan. “We are in favor of education. We should start in-house with these men and women that make their living on the bay.”
The common theme among the fishermen was education before writing fines. And another place to start was marking the channel, which would require no small amount of dollars.
“They want something done but they don’t want to deal with the law,” said Commissioner William Thursbay.
May argued that carrots were fine but what was also needed was a stick in the form of enforcement. He said education would only work with the addition of monetary motivation for boaters to protect the bay.
And Commissioner Rex Buzzett defended May and his efforts.
“This is a serious problem and you all know we have a problem out there,” Buzzett said. “We’ve got to do something. His suggestion is we are going to get serious about it.
“We need to let somebody do something. We don’t need to sit around and just talk about it and do nothing.”
Buzzett, echoing comments about chemical runoff, added that it was time the city enforced taking people on Cape San Blas off septic tanks. The city had run a sewer line the length of the cape and peninsula. Now was the time to rid the southern end of the county of septic tanks.
May said he hoped somebody would pick up the baton and continue the effort to save the bay, though given the resistance to his strategy he said he was obviously not that man. But he said it was an effort worth undertaking.
Mayor Mel Magidson said the burden really fell on those in attendance who rejected May’s plan but who have a vested interest in the future health of the bay.
“I think everybody is on the same page about the saving the bay because it is the goose that laid the golden egg,” Magidson said. “The question is how we do it. I think to an extent that has to start with you.”