Florida Keys News - Islamorada/KL Free Press
Wednesday, October 16, 2013
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Guides air closure concern

ISLAMORADA -- It was a protest, only Keys-style. So while some people had bottles in hand, none were of the Molotov cocktail variety.

The crowd, an estimated 100-plus boats strong, took to Florida Bay last Wednesday afternoon to implore leaders in Washington to reopen Everglades National Park, as well as the country's 400 other national parks.

The protesters made their way to the scene in flats boats, kayaks, bay boats, pontoon boats, paddle boards and more. They parked themselves just to the south of Cowpens Cut Channel, off Plantation Key, and a short distance east of the park boundary.

But with the exception of two rogue vessels, they didn't make the trip across the Intercoastal Waterway and into the 780 square miles of the bay that has been off limits since Oct. 1 due to the partial shutdown of the federal government.

When the Gulf of Mexico side of Everglades National Park is counted, some 1,000 square miles of water are closed to fishing and to the approximately 350 guides who have permits to lead anglers into the park.

"The longer this closure goes on, the more economically devastating it is to us and others throughout South Florida who depend on the park to help support their families," Randy Towe, an Islamorada-based backcountry fishing guide and rally organizer, said through a megaphone as the boats floated in the calm bay waters.

The protest drew a varied crowd of professional fishermen, other marine-related businessmen and Florida Bay enthusiasts. Many flew American flags. Some held signs. "Don't shut down our backyard," read one sign held by four school-age boys.

Absent from the event were park rangers. The guides, in conjunction with Andy Newman, who does public relations for the Monroe County Tourist Development Council, had assured Everglades Superintendant Dan Kimball that they would stay clear of park waters.

Newman said the TDC has a strong interest in seeing the fishing guides return to work.

"The goal is very simple," he said. "It's to get these guys in the park so their clients will continue to come."

Fishermen say they shutdown has come during one of the best times of year to fish Florida Bay. The cooling waters of fall suit prized fish like tarpon, redfish and trout, said fishing guide Tad Burke, another of the protest organizers. And snook, valued for their tasty meat, are in season for the first time since a devastating cold front in 2010.

The closure hasn't stopped flats fishing trips entirely. Guides can still hit the less extensive shallows on the oceanside of the Upper and Middle Keys, for example. But it's definitely making it harder to make bookings, Burke said.

Out near the park boundary last Wednesday, the protesters gathered for the better part of an hour while news media boated around capturing photos. Overhead, Newman shot photos from a helicopter. Representatives from the wire services Reuters and Getty were on the scene. So were Miami television crews.

When the helicopter cleared, Towe, using both a megaphone and the radio, read his statement imploring Congress to end the shutdown and open the national parks.

For protesters Brandon Panse and Steve Jahn, both marine mechanics, the guides can't get back to work soon enough.

"We work on boats," Panse said. "If they don't make money, we don't make money."

rsilk@keysnews.com

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