Save the keys please
It can jump 10 feet straight up or whip a man to death with two slaps of its armored tail. The tarpon-a.k.a. cuffum, silver king, sabalo real and Megalops atlantica-is a game fish to reckon with. But you wouldn't want to eat one.
The tarpon's flesh is soft and tasteless by all accounts, and most anglers release their fish after the fight, honoring the quarry by returning it alive to the sea. So I was surprised during a recent evening of tarpon fishing out of Marathon in the Florida Keys to hear a voice on the VHF radio offering 40 cents a pound for tarpon. "I'll buy all you can catch," the voice added in a distinctly American accent. If I was only mildly amused by the offer, my guide was outraged.
"That's my livelihood he's messing with," said captain Randy Rode of the Rode Runner. "What the hell's going on here?" Rode, 38, is a third-generation Keys captain. His father, ****, was one of the pioneer charter-boat skippers on Marathon Key, and his grandfather, a transplanted New Englander, fished commercially in the days before the Keys sportfishing industry developed. (A brother, Gary, was killed by lightning while putting out crawfish traps.) In addition to having a stake in the Keys fishery, Rode is a graduate marine biologist ( University of South Florida, 1971) with a deep concern for the future of the Florida ecosystem. His reaction to the message we had just heard on the radio was understandably fierce.
"This is another example of how these waters are being ripped off and ruined," he said. "In the first place, it's against Florida law to buy or sell game fish—not just tarpon, but snook, sailfish, striped bass, permit or bonefish, too. If this guy is getting away with it, what comes next?"
"Let's find out," I said.
We did, and in the course of our investigation we saw an appalling number of practices now becoming established in the rich waters of the mid-Keys that could, in the long run, do irreparable harm to that splendid marine habitat.
?Sport netting. Early each morning during the tarpon run, charter skippers like Rode and his friend Brad Picariello go out to net mullet and save themselves the $30 a dozen they would otherwise have to pay for this most toothsome of tarpon baits. But it's getting harder and harder to come by the baitfish. On this particular morning, Rode, Picariello and I scoured canal after canal along the Atlantic side of Marathon Key. Picariello, poised in the bow with the cast net, guided us slowly, quietly into one canal lined with $250,000 condos. "They were here by the hundreds day before yesterday," he whispered. "Now I don't see a ripple."
"It's the damned sport netters," Rode snarled. "They were in here yesterday."
Sport netting? The concept was as incongruous to me as, say, competitive leaf raking.
"Hell, they don't need the money," Rode explained. "They do it for the fun. Come in here with their fancy boats, run a long gill net around a whole school of mullet, then pull 'em. They wholesale their catch for barely enough to buy a couple of cases of beer. But they've done the macho thing, you see, and wrecked the day for us."
Finally, far down a palm-lined canal where expensive cabin cruisers lay moored beside neatly mowed lawns, we found a school of flipping mullet. Picariello picked up his cast net, crouched, then threw. The web splashed down and yielded a dozen fat, strong fish—a trip's worth of bait for a tarpon captain and his charter.
?Fish traps. These devices—big cages of heavy-gauge vinyl-coated wire baited with chunks of "trash" fish—have become increasingly popular among commercial fishermen. Their use in state waters is forbidden under Florida law. Yet Rode and I saw many, marked by their floats, within the state's three-mile limit off Marathon. Captain Doug Smith of the marine patrol on Marathon says that some commercial fishermen set "trotlines" of illegal fish traps without using telltale floats to mark their positions. "They use a loran [a navigational device that can establish an accurate fix on a boat's position by using radio pulses from bases on shore] and, if there's no marine patrol boat in sight, drop their traps in a plotted line," he said.
That's bad enough, but even with all that electronic assistance, the fishermen inevitably lose a few of the traps. They can break loose in storms, strong currents can sweep them hundreds of yards away, or mooring lines can simply get old and separate. "A trap like that lying on the bottom becomes a perpetual killing machine," Mike Long of the marine patrol told us. "Each fish that enters it eventually dies and serves as bait for more fish. On and on."
?Shrimpers. As the hunt for the succulent pink tablefare grows more and more intense, so too does the damage to the bottom across which shrimp boats deploy their heavy nets. "They won't drag across a rugged bottom," Rode said, "anything with outcroppings of rock or coral or old wrecks. That rips their nets. They prefer to drag on open stretches. Unfortunately, that's where the turtle grass grows—Thalassia testudinum. Ecologically, it's the most productive plant in these waters, the basis of the marine ecosystem. Destroy it and you're destroying the entire food chain from the bottom up."
We stopped astern a shrimper that was drying its nets one morning offshore from Marathon. A crewman, on watch while his shipmates slept, gave us a bucket of "cullin's" from the boat's trash barrels—unsalable or at least unsortable leavings from the previous night's drags. Rode went through the trash with a practiced eye. In addition to plenty of small but perfectly edible shrimp, he found flounder, squirrel fish, squid, lizard fish, cigar minnows, cowfish, rock shrimp ("They used to be called 'mud suckers' until some smart guy in the shrimp business changed their name," Rode said), and plenty of ripped-up turtle grass. "This gives you an idea of what they're doing," Rode concluded. "Look at all the things that live on the bottom and die when the shrimpers come through. And you can't really blame the shrimpers, can you? They got to feed their families. Too damned many people in it, is all."
?Coral and conch hunters. Running past literally hundreds of illegal crab and crawfish pots (the season for stone crabs and the clawless Florida lobster had ended two weeks earlier), we stopped near Sombrero Light, which is built on what was once a splendid coral reef. Though the wind was blowing better than 15 knots, making for tough snorkeling, half a dozen dive boats lay at anchor over the reef. The reef itself was marred by dozens of bare white blotches of dead coral, as if a sort of submarine leprosy were at work on the bottom. A huge brain coral the size of a Volkswagen Beetle stood dead on its head.
"I used to dive on this reef a lot when I was a kid," Rode said. "Then, after about 10 years away from it, I came back. What I saw haunted me—it haunts me still. The destruction. The white spots are from anchors hitting and ripping and killing the coral or from tourists picking the stuff for their living rooms—even though it's against the law. There used to be purple sea fans all over the place here. Not anymore. All gone north with the tourists. That brain coral was overturned by some diver with a crowbar, looking for cowries underneath it, probably. He couldn't have been dumb enough to think he could get it up to the boat and ship it home. Or could he?"
Farther to the east we stopped at a shoal covered with turtle grass. The water was no more than eight feet deep—easy even for novice divers. Hidden among the waving grass were hundreds of big shells—queen and horse conchs, triton trumpets and cowries. The live ones were dark, but there were many dead shells, too, winking pale in the aqueous light. "Queen conchs are protected by law," Rode said, "but they take them anyway, along with the unprotected horse conchs. Think they'll make some conch salad. But when it comes to removing the animal and cleaning it, they give up. You have to know where to chip into the shell or you'll never pry the meat out. So they just throw them back. Dead." Rode turned away in disgust.
It would be so easy, he argued, for the commercial dive shops on Marathon and the other Keys to prevent at least the coral damage by buoying their dive sites so that their anchors don't rip up and kill the very stuff their livelihood depends upon. "Half a day's work to put anchor buoys on all of Sombrero Reef," he said. "It would make life easier for them just from the boating standpoint—no lost anchors. As for the conchs, I don't know the answer. There are only 28 marine patrol officers in the entire Keys—2,500 square miles." Indeed, we didn't see a single marine patrol boat in three days of dawn-to-dusk running in Marathon waters.
We never did get a positive identification on the tarpon buyer who set us off on this depressing odyssey—only that he was rumored to be in the Keys to shoot a video about fishing for sharks. For some odd reason—perhaps to make an already-macho sport look even more so—he had hit on the idea of using chunks of shiny dead tarpon as shark bait. At first, our informants told us, he tried to catch enough tarpon by himself to provide the bait. When that didn't work, he reportedly tried to "long-line" for his bait—running half a mile or more of line, suspended by floats on the surface, from which dropped shorter lines baited with mullet.
"Ridiculous!" said Picariello when we told him. "It couldn't work. The tarpon here are all in shallow water—20 or 30 feet for the most part. Assuming a fish actually took one of those baits and hooked up, it would drag the rest of the rig into the cover of the bridge pilings and foul the whole mess."
Perhaps that is why our man gave up long-lining and took to the airwaves in search of buyable tarpon. At the time, our sources told us that he was renting a house on an old estate on one of the neighboring Keys. When we contacted another resident of the estate, he informed us that at one point there were perhaps half a dozen tarpon, which weighed about 100 pounds each—nice-sized fish for those waters—floating dead in the estate's boat basin, along with a number of lesser fish. These the tarpon merchant would periodically "whack up" with a chain saw—"scales and blood and hunks of meat flying every which way"—to prepare his bait. "The Marathon Chain Saw Massacre," Rode said.
But Mr. X apparently never completed his video. By the time we got on his trail he had already left the area—in a "bit of a hurry," the other estate resident told us.
Only the boat he had been using—a white-hulled 25-footer—remained behind, its name a legacy to the failed effort: Ship of Fools.
"The way things are going," Rode mused as we drove away, "the name could apply just as well to the Florida Keys—or the whole damned planet for that matter."