On a balmy evening this past February, before the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in South Florida, Capt. Bouncer Smith motored his 33-foot open fisherman into Government Cut. The Miami skyline glowed like a string of lanterns. On board, a group of return customers in town for the annual boat show were stalking tarpon.
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The night felt more like summer. Temperatures hovered in the upper 70s. Just after sunset, a choppy wind gave way to a soft breeze.
“I always tell people if they can catch three tarpon in the daytime, in the same amount of time at night you can catch six or seven,” said Smith, who’s guided anglers in South Florida for more than 50 years. “But when you catch them at night, there’s a lot more mystique.”
In a video Smith posted from that night, you can hear someone in the dark whispering, “giant, giant,” after a tarpon is hooked. The rod bends deeply under the fish’s power. Smith’s mate, Brandon Kohn, begins coiling the line around his gloved hand, guiding the exhausted fish toward the boat. Suddenly, one of the ocean’s best pugilists makes a final stand, punching its prehistoric head from the water with a violent shake, freeing the hook.
For Smith, in his 70s and afflicted with a heart condition and diabetes, this may be his last tarpon season.
Like other charter captains and fishing guides, he’s been sidelined by the coronavirus, consigned to a big, cushy easy chair at his house.
“I get a couple of cancellations every day,” Smith said. “People are holding out as long as they can before they give up. But at some point they just have to give up and say, ‘Well, hopefully we'll see you again real soon.’ Boy, it's a tough time. That's for sure.”
Across Florida, the shutdown triggered by the rise of COVID-19 has stalled a recreational saltwater fishing industry that generates about $9.2 billion every year. In a 2009 report by the Bonefish Tarpon Trust, South Florida alone churned out about $1.2 billion and supported more than 12,000 jobs. Many of those workers are now joining the backlog waiting for unemployment benefits and small business loans.
The shutdown could not have come at a worse time: March through June marks prime fishing for many captains, when they make the money they need to survive the year.
“Everything else after that is essentially gravy,” said Capt. Steve Friedman, commodore of the Florida Keys Fishing Guide Association.
This month, Friedman said he filed for unemployment for the first time in his life.
But where other industries see nothing but lost profits, the shutdown presents an odd moment for the business of fishing. The abrupt halt emptied out some of the most heavily trafficked waters in the state that have also suffered some of the worst damage from pollution, flood control and a steady pounding from South Florida’s swelling population. In 2016, more than 60-square miles of seagrass died in Florida Bay. Biscayne Bay has lost more than 21-square miles since 2012.
That has scientists taking a close look at fish counts and water conditions. Captains like Smith, who’s been honored for his conservation efforts, are also wondering about the future. Like atmospheric scientists watching smog clear and carbon emissions dip, they suspect there’s a bigger lesson to be learned.
“Right now we're all fretting for our lives,” said Jerry Ault, a fisheries scientist at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. “But in the long run, you know, the quality of life is driven by the environment that we live in.”
Since the 1960s, the state’s population has quadrupled to more than 21 million. While the commercial fleet has held mostly steady, Ault said, the number of recreational boats now tops one million. A quarter of those boats are registered in South Florida. With the doubling time for the recreational fleet at 13 years, he said, the number of vessels in the state could top two million by 2030.
“Which is loving the resource to death,” he said.
In an upcoming paper, Ault revisited a study done 20 years ago that found 70 percent of snapper and grouper in the Keys were overfished.
“Looking at it today, what we realize is, holy crap, it's probably worse than it was 20 years ago,” he said.
Ault and others have argued that establishing some no fishing zones could help fish rebound. Ten years after a zone in the Dry Tortugas was established, fish were not only more plentiful but bigger. Biscayne National Park had proposed small zones in a new park management plan, but Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson, and then-U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen objected and ultimately the state, which shares fishing management, tabled the plan. Florida wildlife regulators have also objected to preserves in a management plan now being drafted for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
With the pandemic, Ault said, “suddenly the entire Florida reef tract is a no fishing zone,” providing a unique real-time look at what conservation measures could accomplish.
Annual surveys conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the National Park Service and UM are typically conducted in May. For now, he said, it’s not clear if the coronavirus will sideline the counts.
Water conditions will be another issue drawing scrutiny.
“There is the possibility that this tragedy is going to bring some improvements in water quality,” said Florida International University geochemist Henry Briceno, who conducts quarterly water monitoring for NOAA in the Keys.
Over the summer, NOAA reported that Biscayne Bay was transitioning from clear waters and meadows of seagrass to gravy-colored waters thick with macro algae. They called it a regime shift.
Briceno said this winter has given the bay a break: unusually dry conditions have reduced the polluted stormwater that flushes into canals and flows into bays and bites carved into Florida’s coast. While he doesn’t expect to see a decline in nutrients that helped drive the shift, he says the absence of cruise ships, cargo freighters and recreational boats churning up sediments could make waters clearer.
“For sure we’re going to see some changes,” he said. “Even in Venice, people are seeing fish where they had never seen fish in the last 200 years.”
That would be good for fishing crews, if they can survive in the downturn in business.
Like waiters, bartenders, housekeepers and others in the hospitality industry, they work for tips. Those tips can be hefty, but not year-round. Many work seasonally and as independent contractors are not eligible for Florida unemployment benefits. The federal stimulus package makes those workers eligible for federal relief amounting to $600 a week, but not state benefits.
“We often joke that some people are a dozen shrimp away from bankruptcy,” Friedman said. “They don't go far away from the dock because they don't want to use the fuel.”
The shutdown also comes just three years after Hurricane Irma slammed the Keys, damaging both boats and bookings. The storm thankfully hit during the off-season. And there were workarounds.
“You still could have had people come down. You could arrange for someone to stay somewhere at a house or rent an apartment or something that was still livable,” he said. “You could still make some money.”
Friedman’s association represents about 100 guides. In the past, if a guide landed on hard times, the association would hold a tournament like the Swamp Guides Ball to raise money. Now, they’ve turned to clients with deep pockets. One of those, Mike Rempe, a former employee of ag giant Cargill, heard about cruise ship food going unused at PortMiami, so he called Friedman to offer guides 600 pounds of meat.
There’s also unemployment for those who can manage to complete an application. Friedman managed to get a claim number after getting kicked off several times, but isn’t sure what happens next.
“I have a computer. I have enough savvy to go online and and seek these things out,” he said. “But there are many of my guys that barely answer an email.”
As fraught as the pandemic is for Smith — he worries about his own health, his co-captain, Abie Raymond, who has a new baby, and his business — he’s got an eye on the silver-lining, too.
“So many flats that the bonefish loved to frequent, and the permit and in some places even the tarpon, have been inundated with wind surfers are kite surfers, and jet skiers over the last few years,” he said, recalling a half century when boat traffic turned to gridlock. “There might be some bonefish and permit reappearing in traditional spots they got run out of.”
On a fishing trip earlier this month, Friedman’s son caught his first permit and Friedman caught the biggest one of his life.
It’s also spawning, which would be a boon for years to come. Just not for Smith. This year he decided to retire, quietly telling friends and business associates who needed to know that his last day on the water would be June 1. But that plan could mean he never fishes again.
“I don't think I could handle that,” he said. “But let's see how that plays out.”
An earlier version of this story misstated the name of Smith's co-captain. It is Abie Raymond, not Randall.