The line snaking out of St. Joseph Bay last week near the Frank Pate Park boat ramp was something of a fire line working reverse.
Instead of buckets of water coming out, some 50 or so people, volunteers and sightseers, lined up to carry heavy bags of fish into the water where members of the Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) were emptying the contents into the water.
The bags went back for another fill-up of water and redfish and the cycle was renewed, again and again the hot midday sun.
Few seemed to mind.
The goal behind the sweat and energy was to renew and restore the stock of redfish in local waters.
A partnership with Duke Energy and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the “Snook and Redfish Recovery Tour” began in Southwest Florida and made is ninth stop in Port St. Joe last week.
“We’ve been traveling the state putting fish in the water,” said Trip Aukeman, the CCA’s Director of Advocacy. “Nothing will ever match Mother Nature, but whatever we can do to help is a good thing.”
The tour was initiated after red tide events along the Gulf Coast of Florida impacted shorelines from Fort Myers to Port St. Joe.
Locally, red tide impacted scallop seasons in St. Joseph Bay, but also other fisheries, including redfish.
The red tide events in Southwest Florida were more prolonged and intense.
“It’s been a hard time for fisheries,” Aukeman said. “We don’t reproduce, but we do produce.”
Farm-raised fish, that is.
Duke’s Matriculture Center in Crystal River in Pinellas County has raised some 4.1 million fish for release into Florida waters since 1991.
“We’ve been doing this a long time,” said Duke regional representative Danny Collins of last week’s fish release.
Aukeman said Duke approached CCA about “wanting to do something for fisheries” after the red tide events and Hurricane Michael, Aukeman said.
Thus, the tour, which to date has released nearly 30,000 redfish into local waters from the Tampa area to Northwest Florida.
The concept is similar to efforts to boost fisheries in Louisiana and Alabama, Aukeman said.
Last week, some 8,000 were released into St. Joseph Bay.
“This is a really good thing for the fishery,” said local charter captain Mark Howze.
The fish ranged from 5-7 inches in length and Aukeman said they will remain in the bay for their first years of life.
“They will leave the bay to start breeding in about four years,” he said. “In just over a year, they should reach the 18-27 inch mark.”
Restoring the fisheries is about not only restoring the bay, but propping up an economy in which charter captains and recreational fishing play a huge role, Aukeman said.
Without tagging the fish, the exact impacts of the redfish releases are impossible to track, Aukeman said.
Later this year, the CCA will tag some Snook, which thrive in the warmer waters of South Florida, in partnership with Mote Marine Lab.
But, Aukeman added, anything to boost fisheries walloped by red tide and Hurricane Michael is a positive.
“Anything we can do to start repopulating fisheries has to have a positive impact,” Aukeman said.