Friday, April 27, 2007

Spring Eco-Heritage Boat Trip

The following has been posted by Jimmy Orth, Executive Director of St. Johns Riverkeeper.

We have been blessed with an absolutely beautiful day as we begin the spring Eco-Heritage Boat Trips. This is the type of day that you dream of - blue skies, soft breeze, glassy waters, mild temperatures and low humidity, and an abundance of wildlife all around. We are only on day one, and we have already seen limpkins, alligators, and a manatee. As usual, Trout Creek is a delight to the senses and a reminder of what we have to lose. You hope that generations to come will be able to experience this creek as it is today. As much as we discuss the problems that are impacting our river and focus on what ails it, the river and its tributaries still support a tremendous amount of wildlife and much beauty still remains.

However, the impending growth and development that is projected to besiege our state may change our river for the worse, if we don't change course now. I spoke with one of the passengers, Bill Basford, at lunch, and we both agreed that the river as we know it today will most likely not remain the same for much longer. I thought about this realization and the dilemma that we are faced with. Can we sustainably accommodate the enormous growth that is projected, - a doubling of our state population by 2060? Will we be able to restore the health of our river, or at least maintain its current state of health - impaired but still sustaining life and providing significant economic and recreational benefits?

I am often nostalgic for how I remember the way things once were - the woods where I used to play as a child where houses now stand, an old marina where I used to buy bait that has since succumbed to soaring land values, my favorite local fish camp now filled with transplants and tourists, or the beautiful canopied back road that is now lined with strip malls and towering billboards. I long for the culture, charm, character, flora and fauna that seem to be withering away from my home and birthplace, as we seem to be intent on fulfilling Patrick Smith's prophecy of Florida as a land remembered. I don't want to one day have to reminisce about and long for the river of today, one that is polluted and, in many measures, in decline. I don't want to ever have to say, "At least we used to be able to eat fish on occasion and swim in some parts of its waters with precaution."

Even though our river has its problems and its health must be improved, we are still fortunate to have undeveloped and pristine sections along the river where we can catch a glimpse of our river in its natural state. We still have so much worth fighting for. Despite the challenges that lie ahead of us, my spirit has not been dampened and I am certainly not ready to give up. In fact, the wonders of the river that I am experiencing on this trip make me more determined than ever to protect our river and our quality of life. I am optimistic that we can successfully and sustainably coexist with our river and our natural world, but it will require that we put an end to the status quo. Business as usual has run its course. Let's use our American ingenuity and resolve to craft a new vision and path for our state and for our river. Let's not settle for fond memories or a polluted river. Let us settle for nothing less than a clean, healthy and vibrant St. Johns.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Observations of the River

The following is from a recent e-mail from one of Riverkeeper's founding Board members , Ben Williams. Ben is an avid fisherman and owner of a seafood market, Fisherman's Dock. Enjoy!

The ospreys. They are finishing their nests and a few, I'd venture, are sitting eggs. For weeks now we've observed them ferry, not just the usual fish, but all manner of plant material back to their growing nests. Numerous times we watched as one, a clump of moss or such grasped in a talon, swooped down and dragged the moss across the surface of the water. Why do they do that? Don't know but they do. For the moment, as they've recovered to the point that their nests are almost ubiquitous on channel markers, they simply take flight if we fish to close. In a few weeks noisy defensive behavior, in lieu of just taking to the wing, will be their response to our encroachment. A sure sign little ones have arrived.

And the wood ducks. The nest boxes at the head of the our dock, put there by a thoughtful neighbor, are in use. As sure a sign that the box is in use, as sure as actually seeing them entering a box, is the presence of a pair in the same location each afternoon and morning. They're waiting for the small ones to tumble to the water. Later in the year there will be less of this consistent presence by adult pairs. And it should be mentioned that the ospreys eagerly await the little ones too. As do a host of other predators, from bass to otters to turtles.

And the coots. The coots are notable by their scarcity. While their numbers this year were not as high as in previous years (Their numbers fluctuate quite a bit, for what reason I do not know.) for the last few weeks the few that were here have been leaving. And with their leaving the eagles lose one source of food. So you've never seen a eagle hunt coots? Unusual methods for a bird of prey, a bird we expect to hunt by ambush. The eagle will lazily swoop and dive, back and forth, over a flock of coots on the water. Coots are slow to the wing and prone to dive for protection. Generally the eagles activities will succeed in driving the coots, in a fluttering running rush, back and forth across the water. The eagle just swoops and watches, watches for a weak one, or a stupid one. And if you've never seen coot feathers floating down across the yard as a eagle plucks his meal........

And in the water. It is very busy in the water. It's spring you know and love is in the air (water).

While we haven't heard the gators bellowing yet, it won't be long. They've been much more active of late. Not just sunning themselves but actually behaving as if they're hungry. Had to pull a expensive lure away from a small one the other day.

The other reptiles, the turtles. Friday we noted a big female cooter laying eggs a few feed from the patio. How she, and the many more like her we've see over the years, navigate up the bank, through the thick vegetation.....more impressive is how the quarter sized hatchlings will do the reverse in a few weeks..... the hare knows.

And the river grasses. What we fishermen ( I will NEVER use the PC term "fishers" to describe fishermen. A fisher is a weasel. And "fishermen" is a gender neutral word in the real world! ) call eel grass is, and has been for a few weeks farther south, sending forth it's flowers attached to long round stems. In places the water is speckled with the lime green pollen for them. At least I figure it's pollen, could be the seeds? Anyway it's lime green and floats. In a few weeks the specialized stems will disappear.

And the filamentous algae. It's ahead of itself this year. We've attributed that to the warm winter, maybe wrongly. We fishermen call the algae "snot". Snot, because it hangs on a lure like........well you get the picture. And the algae, when it gets thick enough, will float to the surface in ugly snotty green mats and......well enough of that.

And the fish. My favorites, obviously. As a fisherman, not a fisher!

For the last few weeks the gar, the long nose brand specifically, have been grouped up in breading schools. It may be a stretch to call one large female being followed by as many as 6 smaller males a school, maybe a.......won't got there. Anyway they lay their eggs in the grass. As best I know they thrash their way into some thick stuff, make a group deposit, leaving the eggs to hatch untended. Maybe not right, but I think so. Whatever they do it's obviously working as we've no shortage of gars. And imagine the mating group. A big female, notably darker and pudgier, followed by her admirers, slowly swimming about the shallows, almost oblivious to the boat: unless you make a sudden move. And when they thrash about, the female sometimes of almost 20 pounds, and in water mere inches deep, quite a commotion.

And the bream. Now let's be clear, "bream" is used by we fishermen as a general term for various members of the sunfish family of freshwater fishes. But in truth there are bream, a distinct species, and shellcrackers, and red breasts and pumkinseeds and........well there are more, grouped under that "bream" umbrella. In the last few days the "bream" have started to move from the shell bars and the ends of docks, where they have been staging, into the shallows to bed. In just the last few days we've noted large bedding concentrations, some the size of a boat and some pushing the size of a garage, in the shallows. The biggest concentrations will usually be shellcrackers, at least that's my opinion. The true bream will generally bed in much smaller groups, often times as individual fish, on pieces of sunken wood or dock pilings. In the early morning a active bream bed, especially at low tide, will make the water above it jiggle like Jell-O. They're active little fish when on bed.

And the catfish. They too, have, in the last few days, started to bed. Most of the catfish we see bedding are the smaller speckled cats. They make pitiful looking beds, expending no more effort than it takes to get a area two or three times their body width cleared of vegetation so she ( And I say she because with the cats I can not ever remember seeing more than one fish on a bed at a time. Much different from all the other bedding fish we see.)can rear their young. Catfish are better parent than the bream and gar that just leave their offspring. In a few days we'll start seeing small clouds of very small catfish in the beds with the females. Imagine a catfish of 1/2 to 1 inch and soft, perfectly formed. Of all the juvenile fish it's the one most often to garner the description, "cute". Not a term applied to the adults. Why?

And the bass. They've been bedding for weeks. The activity starts in the springs along the west shore of Lake George, sometimes as early as December. As the water warms the activity, following water temperatures, gradually generalizes up the river. The last few weeks have been spectacular. We've boated, and released, 3 ten pound class fish and 20 or more over 5 pounds. For weeks, actually months, each spring our attention while fishing is tuned to the bright spots in the grass. Those bright spots often times are the fanned out depressions that will receive the eggs of the female bass. The initial bed is fanned out by the male, who will be joined by a female after a day or two. Over the course of a few days the two fish will guard the bed, with a increasing degree of aggressiveness, until the female lays her eggs. After the eggs are laid the female will wander off and leave the male to guard the eggs. The male will continue to guard the eggs, even after they have hatched into fry, and for as much as a week or more after that.

And most of this, and much more, we've noted, not running up and down the river but up close and quiet. For the primary fishing method, for those bedding bass, is that we stand on the bows of our boats and pole them slowly along in the shallows so as not to spook the fish. Needless to say we get to see far more than the fish.

And I guess it is proper, and necessary, to finally note the human component in the life of the river. Families pulling tubes, the sand bar south of Palatka loaded with boats, we fisherman, thousands of us, flailing the water, the kayakers and more............all evident in increasing numbers.

And if you ever wonder if it's worth all the effort, the effort to keep it cycling, it is. And it is appreciated....... And appreciated even more by those of us who get to experience and enjoy. I guess my biggest wonder is that so many who get little chance to enjoy it would work so hard to keep it.