This blog was written by Captain Benny Blanco, a fishing guide in the Everglades and Biscayne National Parks. He lives in South Florida with his wife and three daughters.
As the sun rose over Taylor Slough in Everglades National Park, familiar sights filled the car’s window. Wading ibis moved to their favorite hunting holes, alligators began to stir and bright pink roseate spoonbills flew overhead. Like clockwork, the Everglades became alive. This caused Jason to glue to his window and his imagination raced like never before. It was his first trip into ENP, a gift from his parents for his 9th birthday. His dad could barely keep up with the questions, as they drove the long road to Flamingo Marina.
They quickly hopped on my small skiff and we shoved off to avoid the ever-lingering marina mosquitoes. As we traversed the narrow mangrove corridors and dark water ponds, I managed to answer most of the barrage of questions coming from little Jason. Like most people on their initial visit, the Everglades captivated his entire being. This place is like no other, and can only be accurately experienced in person. No words, pictures or video do it any proper justice.
Throughout the day, they caught fish they’d never seen and saw wildlife only previously seen on television. As I do on every trip, I used the captive audience opportunity to educate them on the ongoing fight to restore the Everglades and all Florida estuaries. We talked about the grass die-off in Florida Bay that ravaged my business. We discussed the manmade structures preventing water from flowing south from Lake Okeechobee into the Everglades. We discussed catastrophic discharges coming from the lake into East and West Coast estuaries. They listened intently, as they enjoyed the beauty that surrounded them.
When it came time to end our day, Jason broke into tears. He was inconsolable, although his dad did his best to calm him. I explained there would be more days like this and he’d be welcome back anytime, but he didn’t want to hear it. After a few minutes he looked up to his dad and said, “Daddy, we have to help the captain save this place. I don’t want to leave. We have to do something!” At that moment, I understood his feelings all too well. The next generation already understands the need to protect our wild places inherently, without explanation. Fortunately, it will soon be in their hands.
While a part of me is overjoyed at the thought of an opportunity for Mother Nature to heal herself, I also hurt for the fishing guides who are struggling during the current COVID-19 crisis. Many of their businesses will not survive.
Fishing guides in Florida have become conservationists leading the way to change. Guides are not only the gateway for the average person to experience magical places like the Everglades—but we are also the eyes and ears. We are inextricably connected to them and as a result, are the loudest and most passionate voices. For decades, we watched the water quality, fisheries and legislation worsen. We witnessed firsthand, more than 50,000 acres of seagrass vanish overnight in Florida Bay and red tide ravage the Gulf Coast, killing nearly every living being in its path. Our businesses and our communities suffer tremendously with every major event. Today, five years after the Florida Bay grass die off, three years after Hurricane Irma destroyed our homes and two years after the worst red tide in our lifetimes, we sit idly as COVID-19 shuts us down completely.
When life returns back to some version of normal, our water quality issues will be more important than ever. Every Floridian is reliant on our tourism industry, whether they understand it or not. With an annual economic impact of more than $120 billion, our water better be clean, our fish better be plentiful and the sun better be shining. Whether you’re an accountant, car mechanic or fisherman, the health of your business is directly related to the health of our water.