Protecting our natural resources is a moral responsibility
We can have all the rules protecting nature we want. Until we enforce them, red tide and other nature degradation will continue.
| 12:00 p.m. March 16, 2023
I have been fortunate to live on the Suncoast in the Longbeach Village on Longboat Key for over four decades. In those 40-plus years, I have enjoyed the coastal bounty as an angler and been rewarded financially as a building contractor.
Over time, I have experienced a decline in the environment that has compelled me to work to protect it. That experience began in the late 1980s in fisheries conservation, progressed to saving land (the Sister Keys), and now centers on protecting water quality and coastal habitats (Suncoast Waterkeeper) including seagrasses and mangroves.
In the beginning, my efforts were an attempt to preserve the fabulous fishery I had been introduced to and wanted to protect. That was followed by concern at the site of shorelines being transformed into living spaces (Tidy Island and Jewfish Key) and a newspaper article offering the Sister Keys for sale.
The red tide events that I experienced over that period were often very large and devastating (although initially relatively short-lived and spaced sometime a decade apart) to fisheries populations and my business as well. That led to the formation of Sarasota Bay Watch (SBW) to get more people involved in the health of the bay.
That experience proved to me that the general population wasn’t apathetic. Quite the opposite, they were eager to help and just needed to be offered a way to get involved. SBW worked to repopulate the bay with scallops (following the lead and help of Tampa Bay Watch) eventually settling on clams, worked to remove fishing line from bird rookeries, did underwater cleanups, youth education and much more.
I was committed to SBW and still am but over time it became apparent that you couldn’t affect meaningful long-term change if water quality and habitat were not addressed. Sarasota Bay Watch had added over a million water filtering clams to the bay and organizations like the Coastal Conservation Association, successor to the FCA, were raising and releasing millions of trout and redfish to replenish depleted stocks.
While I applaud and support these efforts, I think it's important for people who enjoy the Suncoast’s environment and benefit from it financially to appreciate an important fact. In my experience we can’t plant enough shellfish and restock enough fish to protect the resource for future generations if we don’t address the underlying problem of water quality and habitat protection.
Florida has rules and regulations that are science-based and calculated to preserve these foundational resources. The problem, both now and since the early '80s, has been the lack of enforcement and ineffective penalties that were imposed when they were enforced. That was troubling and led to the desire to get involved in working to protect a slowly dwindling resource. That concern led to alarm during and after the devastating harmful algae bloom (red tide) of 2017-2018. From the time I arrived on Longboat Key until then the amount of seagrass coverage had increased by 40% as homes and existing developments were moved from septic to central sewer and storm water runoff was being addressed and better managed.
In the past six years all the gains over four decades have been lost and the affected seagrass meadows that remain are covered in algae. The long-term effects, if not addressed, are less of the shrimp, crustaceans and other food sources that fish, seabirds and other coastal fauna depend on. To make matters worse mangroves are being illegally cut and removed at an alarming rate despite the same benefits (add coastal resiliency) they provide and the rules that are in place to protect them.
The answer? Get involved and be part of the solution. Demand accountability from our elected officials, email them, write letters, call them, attend meetings.
It’s easy to criticize the government, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and other agencies. It’s important to realize this is a shared responsibility. As citizens we elect the politicians we depend on to enact meaningful rules and regulations. Take the time to research the records of the leaders we vote for. It’s the only way to make sure future generations have the same opportunities we’ve had. I believe it rises to the level of a moral imperative.
Rusty Chinnis is chair of Suncoast Waterkeeper, an organization dedicated to protecting water quality and habitat in Sarasota and Manatee counties. Chinnis was a founder of and former co-chair of the Sister Keys Conservancy and is a co-founder and chairman emeritus of Sarasota Bay Watch. He was instrumental in forming the Manatee Chapter of the Florida Conservation Association, now the Coastal Conservation Association, and served as its first president. Chinnis also serves on Manatee County's Environmental Lands Management and Acquisition Committee ELMAC.