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December 11, 2007

Trouble in Paradise

Skyrocketing populations bring the Sunshine State water-management challenges

One summer evening in the early 1970s, a father was fishing with his son along the jetties at Sebastian Inlet. It was a particularly dark night along central Florida's Treasure Coast. The father motioned to the empty dunes stretching northward along the beach. In 20 years, he told the boy, the only thing you'll see are lights all the way up that coast.

"Dad was right," remembers Blair Wiggins, today a father himself. "Now there are lights and condos as far as the eye can see."
 
Wiggins, host of television's Addictive Fishing, isn't the only one with a story like this. Anyone who's lived in the Sunshine State for an extended period has witnessed massive change. Florida's beauty and wild qualities - and unparalleled fishing - have always attracted people from far and wide, but never before has the flood of new residents been more intense. They seek, as others before them sought, "the good life." But rampant development and new infrastructure associated with their arrival is placing such a strain on the state's natural resources and coastlines that one day there may not be a "good life" to be had in Florida. 
 
This harsh reality is helping define the agenda of government officials who are scrambling to find ways to save estuaries and protect pubic boating-access points - and most importantly, preserve the state's vital supply and flow of fresh water.
 
Sport Fishing recently caught up with a number of these officials, along with a few of the state's top saltwater anglers during the filming of Costa Del Mar's Finding Wild Florida. The sunglass company   has emerged as one of the truly dedicated organizations attempting to bring attention to this mounting crisis. It's no wonder - they're based in Ormond Beach, Florida.

A Population Explosion
It seems only yesterday that Florida was the "paradise" Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and John Bartram wrote of so beautifully. To be sure, the state still has abundant areas of wild places and superb fishing, but every passing day sees them coming under assault, even if indirectly or inadvertently.

Florida's mushrooming population hit 18.09 million in 2006, according to the  U.S. Census Bureau. That represented a 13.2-percent increase from 2000, more than double the national average. 
 
Even in bustling Miami, where huge populations have resided for years, Capt. Ray Rosher of Miss Britt Charters has noticed change. Rosher says offshore fishing for pelagics has remained strong over the years, but there has been a noticeable decline along the reefs. He feels that heightened fishing pressure, coupled with enhanced GPS technologies, has created a situation whereby "most nooks, crannies, ledges and wrecks are documented and can be found by anyone with basic computer and boat-handling skills. It's getting easier to accomplish things that 25 years ago only a seasoned captain could do."
 
Meanwhile, worlds away from Miami, in the sleepy, little town of Steinhatchee, big changes are underway as well.
 
"When I came here 15 or 20 years ago, a 25-foot boat was a big one," says Capt. Steve Kroll. "Anything bigger than that was a commercial grouper boat. But we've got much larger boats on the river now."
 
Kroll welcomes the change, contending that most new residents are respectful of the environment and contribute to the economy. But with each passing year, he's noticed more and more prop scars in the pristine shallow-water scalloping areas and trout flats of the Big Bend.
 
Kroll and Rosher might as well get used to it. All indications point to Florida becoming increasingly populated. In fact, a recent report from the GeoPlan Center at the University of Florida states that over the next 50 years, Florida's population will essentially double to 35.8 million, urbanizing nearly 7 million more acres of land, most of which is currently designated as native habitat or for agriculture.
 
A huge portion of that growth is expected to blossom in southwest Florida and areas south of Orlando, in the vicinity of the upper reaches of the Kissimmee River watershed. This could spell additional trouble for what is already the most complex issue facing Florida today - its flow of fresh water.