Episode 5: Professional Guides Talk Fishing on the IRL — Past & Present
In our fifth episode, we talk with Captain Jim Ross and Captain Blair Wiggins, commercial fishing guides and Indian River Lagoon locals who have witnessed first-hand many of the changes to the Lagoon’s ecosystem. We discuss the potential solutions to Lagoon issues, including the IRL Clam Project, and what everyone in the community can do to help — whether you’ve just moved here or have called the Lagoon your home for generations.
To learn more about the IRL Council and our lagoon home, visit OneLagoon.org.
Duane DeFreese: Hi, I am Duane DeFreese, executive director of the IRL Council and the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program. Welcome to our One Lagoon, One Voice podcast.
Each week, myself or one of my staff members will host leaders in the community, scientists along the lagoon, people who know a lot about the system, to talk about some of the problems, and most importantly, some of the solutions to solve the Indian River Lagoon’s health and make sure it’s great for future generations.
If you enjoy hearing us talk about the Lagoon, like and subscribe to this podcast. So, let’s get the show started, and let’s talk a little lagoon.
Dan Kolodny: Hi, there. Welcome to One Lagoon, One Voice. I’m Dan Kolodny, and I’ll be hosting today’s podcast. Today, we’re here to talk about one of my favorite subjects, which just so happens to be my favorite hobby. That’s right. We are talking about fishing in the lagoon.
For years, the Indian River Lagoon was touted as world-class with numerous world records being caught, but things are not what they used to be. The decline in water quality, repeated algal blooms, and subsequent loss of habitat and fish kills the lagoon has faced over the past decade have changed the populations of fish and, thus, the fishing.
And so, to help put some perspective into how the changes in water quality, habitat loss, and fish kills have had an impact on that fishing, I’ve invited a good friend of mine who’s not only a local fishing captain, but grew up on the lagoon, and has probably over 40 years of experience fishing. He is also the host of a local radio show called “Catch A Memory Outdoors”. And so, Captain Jim Ross, thanks for coming on today.
Captain Jim Ross: Well, I appreciate you having me, Dan. And it didn’t really come to light here until recently. You start having manatees and dolphins die, not just fish, and now all of a sudden people are wondering what’s wrong with the lagoon. And today, hopefully, we’ll be able to expose some of those things — what is exactly wrong with the lagoon, and why isn’t it what it used to be.
So, I’m glad you invited me on, and hopefully I can shed some light on from my experience as a full-time fishing guide and growing up here my entire life and being on the water since I was basically about five or six years-old, to see how the changes have occurred over the years.
Dan Kolodny: Thanks, Jim. Also joining me is another local legend who also grew up on a lagoon with his own fishing TV show called “Blair Wiggins Outdoors”. He’s a staunch advocate for lagoon restoration and has led the push to restore clam populations in the lagoon through the IRL Super Clam Project, Captain Blair Wiggins.
Hi, Blair. Thanks for coming on today.
Captain Blair Wiggins: It’s good to be on with you, and hopefully we can shed some light on the lagoon here. And unfortunately, like Jim said, unfortunately it took a few manatees to die for it to really get looked at here really hard. We’ve been screaming about it since 1998, ’99. But, yeah, we finally got some recognition around here. And with the clam project and everybody that’s doing the estuary restoration programs around the lagoon, hopefully we’re going to get it back soon.
Dan Kolodny: Yeah, thanks guys. I’m really looking forward to this discussion, talking about fishing and where it was. I really want to look back and let our viewers think about what the fishing was like because everybody that maybe is here just came down, like me, as a transplant, thinks this is what’s normal. But it wasn’t like that. So, I’m really excited. So again, thanks for coming on and welcome to One Lagoon, One Voice.
So, I always bug Jim about the hot bite when I get a chance to go fishing on the lagoon. And so, for me to hear about your perspectives and the history of fishing on the lagoon is something I’m really curious about.
I came down in 1997 to go to FIT, and I can still remember just not really knowing much about saltwater fishing, but it was so easy. I could just walk in off any of the causeways, anywhere there was public access, cast, and catch practically a trout on every cast. And that was great till about the mid-2000s, and then it changed. And so, I have a limited experience fishing on the lagoons from about the late ’90s, but you guys have been here forever. Tell me what it was like when you were growing up.
Captain Blair Wiggins: How old are you, Jim?
Captain Jim Ross: I’m 55 now.
Captain Blair Wiggins: 55. I do got a couple of years on you. But my first memories, I lived in Cocoa up until I was in about the, I think it was, first grade. And during the first grade, second grade we moved over from Cocoa to Cocoa Beach, and that was in 1971. So, that was quite a long time ago.
And my baseline of the Banana River/Indian River Lagoon System is, I remember fishing with my dad back then, and he would tell me stories about his good old days. And he said, “Well, think of this. This is going to be your good old days right now.” And sure enough, it was, because, I mean, it was nothing really to go out and catch a four or five pound trout, and I’m talking to a stringer full of them when I was a little kid. Popping cork and a live shrimp, I mean, it was nothing. You had to shake the little ones off. I mean, it was crazy how many fish were here back then.
Dan Kolodny: Jim, what about you?
Captain Jim Ross: I basically can ditto that. My grandfather moved here right around 1936, and so you can imagine what the lagoon used to look like back then. The place was just phenomenal. I can’t count the number of trophy trout buttons that my grandfather used to have in a little box that he would turn into, I believe it was, Field and Stream Magazine would give these 8, 9, 10 pound buttons, if you will, that you could pin to your cap or your lapel of your fishing vest or whatever. I mean, he just had an entire box full of them.
Captain Blair Wiggins: Absolutely incredible. When I first got my captain’s license and started guiding as a part-time guide when I first started, I would literally guarantee people an eight pound trout. We’d have to fish my way and I would guarantee you, we might only catch one fish, but it’s going to be an eight pound or better trout.
Dan Kolodny: Yeah.
Captain Blair Wiggins: And it got to a point where I had to give a few trips away, and I wasn’t that confident about putting an eight pound plus trout in the boat anymore. And I could usually go do that in Mosquito Lagoon or Banana River. It was a piece of cake.
I mean, if you didn’t get an eight pound trout when you were using a seven-inch finger mullet, something was off. And then, you had to shake the big red fish off, and they were in the canal systems, they were around. They were everywhere. I mean, literally everywhere.
Dan Kolodny: That’s amazing. I can still remember, even me, catching a four or five pound trout, no problem, and just remember that shift. I’m sure some of our listeners can probably relate to your experiences if they were here back then.
People, like me, that are transplants much more recent, they probably do not have any of these same experiences like you guys do at all. What happened? Why is it so different now? Was it all because of the algae blooms and the fish kills? What is your guys’ take on that?
Captain Blair Wiggins: Population. Population and too much pavement, storm water runoff, putting too much fresh water into the lagoon. People don’t know about fertilizer.
As you know, Jim and I are working with Dr. Todd at Whitney Labs a lot with the clam restoration project. One of his sayings is that the lagoon has died from a thousand cuts. And we are basically trying to put band-aids on all these cuts that are out there, and we need to take care of our water first, learn how to take care of the water, and then we can do our development.
I mean, it’s pretty sad when you see all these nice green lawns, and you’re pulling by an area and you get a fresh rain and you see where the fertilizer’s basically leaking off into the river. And it’s got that bright green color, it’s got that off green cement color. The algae is just blooming like crazy because the fertilizer’s working.
Captain Jim Ross: Yeah. Unfortunately, like Blair was saying, the transport systems that we’ve developed to drain the land so that we were able to develop it, those transport systems of stormwater drains are just way too efficient. And they’re taking all of the water that used to saturate all of the woods and all of the cow pastures and those sorts of things and just saturate down into the ground. And it was a very, very slow runoff into the lagoon.
We’ve put it on a fast track, and it hits on the cement, it hits on the tarmac, it goes straight to the gutter, the gutter goes straight to a pipe, that piping goes directly to the lagoon system. Had a lot of flooding back then. You always had a heavy rain in the afternoon, you always knew there was going to be water in the streets.
Which was really cool as a kid because you got to play with tadpoles and minnows that swam up out of the ditches and down the middle of the street, and you can chase them on your bicycle and your skateboard and run up and down with your dip net like you were along the side of the lagoon system or you were along the side of one of those ditches. But now, everything has been super sized and the water now takes, in some cases, minutes to hours to travel that same distance that used to take weeks.
And so, it doesn’t have the ability to saturate into the ground, percolate down into the ground. It’s on this express train straight to the lagoon. And everything that it can pick up along the way is on that express train, too, whether it be grass clippings and leaves, whether it’s brake dust, whether it’s oils that are coming off of the roadways and off of people’s cars.
Captain Blair Wiggins: Don’t forget all the cigarette butts. That drives me nuts.
Captain Jim Ross: And as Blair mentioned, the fertilizer. For some reason, people move down here from New York City and Detroit and other places where they’ve never seen anything green in their life, apparently. And now, they think, “Oh, I’ve got a yard, and I need to make my yard look vibrant green and keep it vibrant green all year long.” And that excessive nutrient load that they’re putting on their grass, the grass can’t absorb it. And it washes off into the gutter system and the gutter system takes it through the stormwater system and it deposits it directly in the low spot, which is the lagoon, which is where the algae start blooming on it. And basically, that’s the beginning of the end of the lagoon.
Dan Kolodny: Yeah, it’s funny you guys say this because we’ve looked at this a lot, and it’s just crazy to show how much we’ve channelized and changed the land so that all these different pollutants enter the system.
Captain Blair Wiggins: When was the last time you were in Mosquito Lagoon?
Dan Kolodny: I was going to say I’ve been to Northern Mosquito Lagoon this current year. I was up there in May doing some shoreline restoration work.
Captain Blair Wiggins: I was in there last weekend or weekend before. I can’t remember. We were doing a clam release there, and the grass is everywhere. I mean, literally everywhere. The south end is loaded. And I mean, it’s incredible how quick it came back.
Dr. Todd and I were talking, and he feels it came back from seed rather than the rhizomes left in the sand. And he thinks the trigger, and it’s something I’ve been saying for many years now, the trigger was the breaches that came and dumped the salt water and got the salinity level up to the correct amount, which is 30 parts per million or above, in between that 30 and 35, which is ideal for sea grass growth.
Captain Jim Ross: You know, Blair, one of the things that’s interesting about that breach that happened in the south end of the Mosquito Lagoon is that was probably —
Dan Kolodny: That was after Michael, wasn’t it?
Captain Jim Ross: Yes, it breached right there by Eddy Creek. And that breach was probably the only breach that we’ve really seen that had any kind of an effect on the lagoon system. But I’m a little skeptical on the whole “let’s create a new inlet” type of scenario.
Captain Blair Wiggins: Oh, yeah. I don’t say we create a new inlet because that would change everything.
Captain Jim Ross: Right.
Dan Kolodny: So, just for our listeners, to clarify what a breach is. That’s essentially a part of where the ocean cuts through or goes over the top of the barrier island between the lagoon. So, like we were just discussing, the lagoon did have a lot of shifting inlets or breaches for several years before all the inlets that are there now, were finally stabilized. But those inlets require a lot of maintenance. They have to pump sand, constantly dredge them out, beach renourishment, and they do create other issues for homeowners.
And I think you guys are touching on a little bit there. The lagoon’s a complex system, and it doesn’t have that river flow. Stuff moves back and forth, it’s all wind driven, and residence time. You touched on it. It takes a long time for water to move from one section down to a possible inlet and out. The northern Banana River, for instance, because there is no connection anymore to Banana Creek through the Crawlerway-
Captain Jim Ross: Yeah.
Dan Kolodny: That water takes two and a half years, some studies show, to get from up there all the way out to Sebastian Inlet.
Captain Blair Wiggins: And there used to be a constant flow through there. When I worked out at the Cape, I worked with Charlie Policicchio. And if you ever drive up to the Cape up there, you see Policicchio Groves. It’s like Pinocchio Groves. Always thought it said Pinocchio Groves as a kid. But it was Policicchio Groves, and I worked with Charlie Policicchio, and he was a little older than I was. But he told me when he was a kid, the fishing, there off of Battleship Island where they brought all the supplies in. They had to dredge that out right across from Port St. John. He said he used to wade out there, and they wouldn’t keep a trout unless it was like eight pounds.
Dan Kolodny: That’s amazing.
Captain Blair Wiggins: That had to be back in the ’50s and ’60s.
Dan Kolodny: Yeah.
Captain Jim Ross: Yeah, that’s similar to the pictures that my grandfather would have of the stringers of trout. They’d keep eight or 10 fish and a small fish was five to six pounds, and most of them were in that seven to eight pound range. And then, there was always that 12 pound kicker hanging on the end, one end of the stringer or the other, that just dwarfed everything else on the stringer. And just amazing to see how big those fish can actually grow compared to the size of the fish that we see currently.
Dan Kolodny: Yeah, and that brings me to a good point. I want to talk about what it is today. It’s not like that at all.
Captain Jim Ross: Yeah.
Dan Kolodny: And how has all the changes that we’ve seen at the Lagoon affected your businesses? Do you guys still target the same species? Do you have to go to different spots that you used to go to? Jim, I know you go fish near shore a lot more now out in the ocean. Is that because of all the changes you’ve seen at the Lagoon?
Captain Jim Ross: Definitely. Blair and I went to The Captain School together back in the day. And the reason that we both went to The Captain School together is because we knew how easy, once you figured the Lagoon out, we knew how easy it was to go put a nice group of fish together. And we could take anybody, whether they knew which end of the rod to hold onto or not, we could take somebody out there and we could put them on some nice fish with just a little bit of coaching. And when we started doing that, the word started to get out.
“Hey, these guys have got 40 inch redfish and 45 inch redfish in the flats that we can sightcast to. These guys have got 25 to 30 inch trout that you can see sitting in the sandy potholes because the water’s clean, and you can sneak up on them and you can cast to these fish in the daytime.”
And this area very, very quickly from the mid-90s, I would say ’93, ’94, ’95 timeframe, to about the 2002 timeframe, 2003 timeframe, this Lagoon system, the Mosquito Lagoon, the Indian River Lagoon, and the Banana River Lagoon, became a destination fishery. It became a Venice, Louisiana. It became an Islamorada in the Florida Keys. It became a Central America destination, like Los Suenos or something like that.
Dan Kolodny: Yeah.
Captain Jim Ross: People came here because of the quality of the fish that they were able to actually look at, make a cast to. And so, when you’re trying to up your game and your skillset as an angler and you’re trying to challenge yourself, Blair and I used to regularly tell clients, “If you want to really, really call yourself an angler, come down here and we’ll sightcast a 30-inch trout with a fly rod, if you will. Or even an ultra light or a light tackle.” And Blair was fortunate enough to have a couple of TV shows that he did before he started his own show, and that really made it explode.
Captain Blair Wiggins: Yeah.
Captain Jim Ross: But what happened about that same time was the Lagoon really took a nosedive and started degrading. And so, the fishing became much harder. And so, guys, like myself and Blair and Rodney Smith and Eric Ersch and Shawn Foster and Troy Perez, we had grown the legend of the Indian River/Banana River/Mosquito Lagoon complex to the point where people from all over the United States, and even all over the world, wanted to come here to do this. And then, all of a sudden, it was stripped away from us by development, unfortunately.
Captain Blair Wiggins: The development, but what I saw that really killed the Lagoon system back when I was guiding up in the north end of the Indian River was the commercial clam industry there.
Captain Jim Ross: Definitely.
Captain Blair Wiggins: There were literally 18 wheelers that were at every boat ramp at four o’clock in the afternoon filling up. And, I mean, when I say croaker sack bags, I don’t mean the little tiny croaker sack bags that you put fruit in. I’m talking about the giant coffee croaker sacks filled to the rim with perfect cherry stones, like this, in one bag, big chowders in the other. And I had a friend that was actually a commercial clammer making anywhere from $2,000 to $2,500 bucks a day.
Dan Kolodny: Wow.
Captain Blair Wiggins: And that’s at a nickel to 8 cents a piece for clams.
Dan Kolodny: That just shows you how many there were. Wow.
Captain Blair Wiggins: Oh, that shows how many clams there were.
Dan Kolodny: Yeah.
Captain Blair Wiggins: He would have 15 bags that size on his boat. But what was the real sticker, there was no regulation. If you wanted a clam license, you could go out and get a clam license. There were literally 10,000 clam licenses or clam boats that I know that were out there any given day.
And any of the listeners out there that can remember back in the ’90s, you saw all these boats on the river and these guys standing on the boats with these sticks in the water just shaking them. They were giant rakes that were basically raping the bottom that not only were they taking our quahog clams, there’s three different other species of clams out there. There’s a thin shell clam, there’s razor clams, and there’s the pinwheel clams, and all filtration out there.
And those are so thin, these rakes touch them and they just crush the shells. A quahog can take it. But the other things they were killing out there, including the horseshoe crabs. I remember my buddy telling me that, “Oh, these damn horseshoe crabs, I probably killed 200 of them today.” And you compound that with 10,000 boats out there, that’s a lot of horseshoe crabs, it’s a lot of pinwheel clams, razor clams, thin shelled clams. All those filters out there that were getting crushed and killed and taken out of our waters.
I was screaming my head off because I saw the same thing happen back in the late ’70s and early ’80s with our oysters. Our oysters got taken down to a point of non sustainability. The crown conchs moved in, the oyster drills moved in, and wiped out every oyster bed that was ever in the Banana and Indian River north of 192. And there used to be a lot of them. I mean, oysters were everywhere here when I was a kid.
Dan Kolodny: Yeah, I’ve looked at the landings and Brevard County in the ’80s had the highest landings anywhere. I mean, it rivaled somewhere in the northeast in some aspects. So —
Captain Jim Ross: Yeah, the Chesapeake Bay.
Captain Blair Wiggins: Oh, yeah.
Dan Kolodny: Yeah, yeah. Huge amounts of oysters.
Captain Blair Wiggins: They came in, I remember seeing a line of barges that looked like a train. It looked like a choo-choo train, man. It was 15 barges, and they were all four feet above the water. And when they left, they barely had any freeboard left on them. And they took them down the intercoastal to Sebastian and spread them out there for two weeks and were able to sell them after that. But they were all the giant best tasting oysters you ever had in your life. I mean, they were delicious. And the oyster bars that were out there when I was a kid, we used to go and get little lobster off of them. Now, granted they weren’t legal lobster, but back then we didn’t know no better. It was actually lobster in the river.
Dan Kolodny: Yeah, there’s a few spots where you can still see them down near Fort Pierce. I go along the Intercoastal edges —
Captain Blair Wiggins: Yeah.
Dan Kolodny: — and see them. But, yeah, I can only imagine what it was like then. So, seeing these changes, I just want to ask you guys, what can people do? For me, when I saw all these changes, I was right at that 29, 2011 tipping point. And I may have taken my passion a little bit too far going back to school, getting a graduate degree, working my way up to the NEP, making a career level difference towards this Lagoon. What are some things that you can tell a normal person that can do? What can they do to help?
Captain Jim Ross: Well, I would say the person that’s just moved here, things down here turn brown in the wintertime. They’ll lose their leaves. They go dormant for a little bit. That’s what they’re designed to do. No, we don’t have snow like you had up there to completely make everything just stop. But we still have a dormant season.
And if there was one thing that I could do in my lifetime to change human behavior, it would be to absolutely outlaw the application of residential lawn and fertilizer in any way, shape or form. Because the millions and millions and millions of pounds of fertilizer that we put down as human beings on our front lawns and our back lawns is absolutely unnecessary. Grass has grown for millions of years without our help. And if it goes dormant in the wintertime, let it go dormant.
If your HOA has a problem with it, then you need to change your HOA’s bylaws and say, “Hey, look. We’re tired of wrecking the Lagoon system just to try to make you guys happy that our grass is the perfect shade of kelly green, even in January and February when it naturally isn’t supposed to be that way.”
So, that one thing, that fertilizer issue, to me, is my biggest pet peeve. When I see fertilizer being sold and being applied, I know what it’s doing to the Lagoon system because we don’t have the filtration system, like Blair had just mentioned. And because the channelizing and the efficiency with which we move storm water from our subdivisions to the Lagoon system has been so greatly increased. I know exactly where that fertilizer’s going to end up, and I know the end result because I’ve seen it, and it’s horrible. So, that would be the one thing that I would just love to change if I had my magic wand and could make it happen.
Dan Kolodny: What do you think, Blair?
Captain Blair Wiggins: Well, my magic wand has already happened for me because I screamed about the clams back in the ’90s, that 2010, 2011 and up to ’15 when our water was black.
But back when I was a fishing guide, when they were up there taking all the clams out, I was screaming, jumping up and down, doing jumping jacks, and I had people tell me, “Oh, you’re just a fishing guide. You don’t know what you’re talking about. These clams are sustainable.” And then, yeah, I didn’t know that. I said, “All I saw was them taking our filter feeders out.” And the more clams they took out from up there, the worse our water quality got.
So, the clam restoration project is a dream come true for me. And if this proves with our breaches that we had up in Mosquito Lagoon that we need to have a salt water dump and then have it sealed off every so often, if that’s going to be a fix, that would be my next. Because right along with Jim and educating everybody with fertilizers and storm water runoff and septic tanks and the other 998,000 cuts that we talked about or that we didn’t talk about.
Captain Jim Ross: There’s so many cuts. You’re right, Blair. Everything that we could possibly do to try to destroy this ecosystem, we basically have done it. And it wasn’t until manatees started floating up dead and dolphins started floating up dead that people started going, “Well, why is this happening?” And a lot of people still don’t understand why it’s happening. But at least those mammals, unlike the fish and unlike the clams, at least those mammals brought some attention to it.
Obviously, it took decades to destroy this Lagoon system. It’s going to take decades to fix this Lagoon system. But the one thing that we need to make sure that people know that when they’re moving here is that your personal habits make a difference. I always say the greener your yard, the more accountable you should be because if you’ve got a green yard, you’re doing more damage than the guy that doesn’t have the green yard next to you.
And we need to make that green yard not be the important thing. Here’s why. Nobody moved here for their yard. Nobody moved here for the shopping center just down the street. People move to Brevard County because of the beautiful place it is and all of the water that we have access to. But what they don’t realize is what’s lying below the surface of that water and how their personal habits affect that Lagoon system. And that’s the big thing that we need to get across is educate those people that are moving here, and even the people that have lived here, to let them know, “Hey, there’s a better way of doing it than what you’re doing. There really is. And it will be beneficial to everyone in the long run.”
Dan Kolodny: Yeah, I totally agree with you. And I want to touch base on what Blair was talking about with the clam project because some of our listeners may not be aware of that that’s a project where the clams were so gone that Todd Osborne from the Whitney lab found some clams in Mosquito Lagoon, was able to breed them, and start putting them back out. And the NEP has been helping fund that, and it’s been some great success so far.
So, just wanted to touch base on that. And then, Jim, I don’t know if you know that a lot of the HOAs can’t make you change your yard if you’ve got Florida friendly landscape, Florida friendly plants.
Captain Jim Ross: Right, right.
Dan Kolodny: So, I totally suggest that folks that are worried about having HOA issues with green lawns get Florida friendly plants in their yard, and they don’t use as much water, don’t need any fertilizer, and you can still have a beautiful lawn. So, definitely there.
I think the message is starting to get out there. I don’t know if you guys would agree with me. There’s been projects now for six, seven years, really big ramped up effort. The whole Save our Indian River Lagoon has sent sales tax that the message is being heard. We’ve seen some progress. What are your opinions there?
Captain Blair Wiggins: I think so for sure. Especially since the manatees and dolphins died. There’s definitely a lot of buzz about it. Because everywhere I go now. I just went to a restaurant called Squid Lips, I think it was down in Melbourne. And all I did was walk in and they said, “Hey, I know who you are. You want to put a clam bed back here?” It’s like, “Yeah, that’s what I’m here for.” So, a lot of people in Brevard County, not just the restaurant owners and managers and stuff, people that stopped me on the street are like, “Hey, how’s the clam project going?” And I’ve got, to date, just to fill you in, we’re at 21 million clams that we’ve put back into the river now. And where there weren’t clams five years ago, there’s baby clams there now, and it’s usually anywhere between a mile and a half a mile south or north of where we’ve put clam beds out. So, what we’re doing is working.
Dan Kolodny: Yeah, Todd was telling me that they had over 90 million little pediveligers (Larval clams that are free-swimming) released just in the water.
Captain Blair Wiggins: Yeah.
Dan Kolodny: And I think St. Johns, who does water sampling, said they actually saw larvae in the water samples, and they haven’t seen that in 20 years.
Captain Blair Wiggins: Every causeway, we’ve been doing our own water samples here, and every single causeway from 192, Eau Gallie, Pineda, 528 on up, we’re doing water samples. Every water sample, they’re finding veligers in there.
Dan Kolodny: That’s awesome.
Captain Blair Wiggins: Which is good. And that’s just off the causeway next to the relief bridge or somewhere in the middle of the river. So, that’s a good sign.
Dan Kolodny: Where there’s hardly any flow, right? So, good stuff.
Captain Blair Wiggins: Yeah.
Captain Jim Ross: Yeah. Dan, I’ve got a question for you.
Dan Kolodny: Yeah, sure.
Captain Jim Ross: In talking with people like yourself, Blair and I are fishing guides. We’ve learned this just from observation. We don’t have, well, up until a few years ago, we didn’t have any scientific basis to base anything on. It was all anecdotal, but over the past 5, 6, 7 years, we’ve gotten a lot more information given to us that is scientific information. I mean, that’s what you, at the NEP, that’s what you guys thrive on is scientific information.
It would be interesting to see, over the course of the last three years where the clam project started, what the salinity levels were three years ago versus now. Have they changed any? How many more veligers are we seeing in samples of water over that three or four year period of time? And then, take that out in two or three or four more years from now.
What are we going to see? Because, obviously, what we’re putting in the water is going to change how many are in the water? They’re going to start to breed on their own, like Blair was saying, create new colonies. Those new colonies are going to create more colonies. We’re going to ramp this thing back up to get billions and billions of clams back in the water eventually again. But the salinity levels, if they continue to stay too low, could thwart all of those efforts.
So, at the NEP, is there anything going on right now where you’re looking at ways to divert storm water to the freshwater river close to here, which is the St. John’s River, versus having it all dump into the Indian River, or a good majority of it? Basically, is there going to be a reduced amount of water, storm water flow, going into the Banana, Indian, and Mosquito complex in the upcoming years?
Dan Kolodny: Yeah, the short answer is yes.
The Save Our Indian River Lagoon Plan has identified tons of different projects to address nutrient loading with a goal of over a million pounds of total nitrogen reduction in Brevard County alone. And it’s a multitude of different projects. They do septic to sewer, muck dredging, removing that legacy load, storm water retention, upgrades, and diversions.
I don’t want to speak for St. Johns River Water Management District, who is the one that handles St. Johns River and those water structures, but they are trying to do some bigger projects, like C-10, and they already completed the C-1, which is a diversion. They’re pumping water from the canals back to the St. John’s, which can actually use the water, versus going to the Indian River Lagoon. And the numbers from that one project are astronomical on reductions of, not only freshwater sediments, but nutrients.
I think the BMAP is a good way for our listeners that don’t know. It’s called the Basin Management Action Plan. That’s the state’s regulatory cleanup for the Lagoon. And they have target levels. And they’ve tracked since that plan went into place in 2013 how much has been reduced. And all the basins are somewhere around 35 to 40%. And everything tells us from the modeling that, once we reach about 75% of that BMAP, things should be significantly better. No blooms or minuscule blooms. So, we’re getting there. Like you said earlier, it’s going to take a lot of time. This didn’t happen overnight. It’s not going to return to being excellent overnight either.
Captain Jim Ross: Well, when you do it as wrong as we did it for as long as we did it —
Dan Kolodny: 70 years.
Captain Jim Ross: — just like you say, you can’t make that magic wand just make everything just disappear. It’s going to take time, and it’s going to take money, and it’s going to take effort. But I’m glad to see that, at the national level, there are things that are being done and things that are currently in progress to help that. Because I know the Lagoon system from my youth, and I know the Lagoon system prior to my youth from pictures that my grandfather had from the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s.
And Blair and I, our goal, we’ve been talking about pollutants for 25 years on our various media outlets. Our goal is to leave this place in better shape than what it is today, and hopefully maybe even better shape than what it once was. Blair and I, when we first started guiding in the mid-90s, just in the Banana River alone, there were nine different schools of giant red fish that we could target on any given day. That doesn’t include the two or three that were just cruising down the shoreline while you were site casting at slot size fish.
And, oh, there’s a 45-inch red fish coming down 18 inches in the water. There were nine distinct schools in the Banana River. So, I would launch in the morning, and if Eric Ersch was on one of those schools, and Rodney Smith was on one of those schools, and Shawn Foster was on one of those schools, and Blair Wiggins was on one of those schools, all with their clients, it didn’t matter because that was only four schools. There were five more schools that I could still go look for for my clients to try and put them on a giant world-class type fish. And if we can start to see those types of numbers of fish get back in this Lagoon system again and stay here, we can create a world-class fishery like we once had.
And when this place becomes a destination again, and people start booking four and five and six and seven day trips to come here, that’s when we know that we’ve all accomplished something.
Dan Kolodny: We did it.
Captain Jim Ross: Because right now, it’s a half a day or maybe a full day on occasion. Sometimes, you get a guy that comes in for two days at a time, but we don’t get those guys flying in on Sunday evening and fishing Monday through Friday and flying back out on Saturday again. That’s what we really need, and that’s what I would like to see this whole ecosystem getting back to, is that kind of world-class fishery.
Dan Kolodny: Right there with you. I sure hope we can get there too. I think we can. I’m hoping we turned the corner after 2020, and it’s just going to take some time, but we gotta keep beating the drum and doing the work. And yeah, I hope in 10 years we can have the same conversation and say mission accomplished.
Captain Jim Ross: That would be awesome.
Dan Kolodny: Yeah.
Captain Blair Wiggins: That would be nice.
Dan Kolodny: Yeah.
Captain Blair Wiggins: I hope I’m here in 10 years.
Dan Kolodny: Oh, you will be. Of all the years I’ve known you, Jim, we’ve actually never had a chance to go fishing together. And I’m hoping soon, one day, maybe all three of us can go out and do a fishing show for Blair. Just go out and have some fun.
Captain Jim Ross: We need to make that happen.
Dan Kolodny: Yeah.
Captain Jim Ross: You know what we need to do? Blair just got a brand new boat.
Dan Kolodny: Oh, there we go. Hey, that would be great. I would love to see some seagrass, post it. And seagrass is a sign of hope. I don’t know if you guys knew. I just did a TEDx talk last month at the port at Cape Canaveral and talked about seagrass and how that is the hope. You see seagrass, there’s hope.
Captain Jim Ross: There’s hope.
Captain Blair Wiggins: Yep.
Dan Kolodny: Yep.
Captain Blair Wiggins: Then, there is definitely hope for the Lagoon because it looks absolutely beautiful. It looks like it used to 25 years ago.
Dan Kolodny: Yeah, it’s beautiful out there right now.
Captain Blair Wiggins: Just minus a few fish. We need to get our fish back now.
Captain Jim Ross: I fished the area between Slippery Creek and George’s Bar, and the grass is starting to come back in there, as well. The water quality didn’t seem to be as good as I’d like to see it. Now, this was two weeks ago on the Memorial Day weekend the last of May, but I was shocked at the amount of grass that wasn’t there just six months ago. So, that was a really, really nice surprise to see that grass starting to get healthy and lush again. And, man, if we can start to see that spread all through the Lagoon system, man, that’s, that’s going to be a great thing.
Captain Blair Wiggins: That would be a good thing.
Dan Kolodny: Yep And the NEP has got five sea grass nurseries in the works to help accelerate that process. So, if water quality stays good, we’ve got five nurseries that are going to start putting sea grass out in the Lagoon and help kickstart some of these areas that maybe don’t have any sea grass to expand from, some of that bottlenecking issue. So, pretty excited. Stay tuned.
So, I want to thank Jim and Blair for joining me on today’s podcast. If you guys want to hear more from Jim or Blair, you can visit them on their respective outlets. So, Jim, go ahead and tell me a little bit about your radio show that you do.
Captain Jim Ross: Well, I appreciate you letting me talk about it, Dan. I’m doing a show currently called “Catch A Memory Outdoors”. It’s the slogan for my fishing charter business, Fineline Fishing Charters, which my slogan is “Catch a Memory.” And I just rolled that into a radio show podcast that we do every Saturday from 7:00 to 9:00 AM on a local radio station here, WBC in Cocoa.
And you can also see that podcast at CatchAMemoryOutdoors.com. So, we do that every Saturday. It’s live. And then, we’ve got four or five years of backlog that you can podcast from.
Dan Kolodny: And Blair, I’ve seen “Addictive Fishing” for several years. It’s one of the things that got me excited about fishing down here when I came down in the late ’90s. But I know you’ve moved on to a different show, and now you’re also really into the super clam project. So, tell me a little bit about those.
Captain Blair Wiggins: Well, as you said, “Addictive Fishing” was a great show that we did for 24 years. And it was all fishing, and the whole time I was doing the fishing show, I had people ask me, “why don’t you ever put your gator hunts or your duck hunts or your crabbing, or everything else that you do in the outdoors?” And I’m like, “That’s my special stuff. I like to keep that to myself.” But after 24 years of doing Addictive Fishing, it was time to start opening up to other things.
And my partner, he wanted to do an RV show, so he is doing an RV show. And I branched out and did “Blair Wiggins Outdoors”, and now we encompass everything in the outdoors on the website, Facebook, social media end of it. And we also have the TV shows on that, as well. But as far as the TV end of it, it’s still all fishing and a lot of highlighting of the Indian River Lagoon Clam Restoration project that we started.
And we do fishing all around the world, really. I do at least three or four shows from the Space Coast here every year and try to highlight Brevard County as much as I can and show it in a good light. And what we’ve been airing now with “Blair Wiggins Outdoors”, we’re in our second year. We just finished on Discovery Channel and are fixing to start on Valley Sports and Waypoint TV with all new shows starting in July.
And you can go to the website, BlairWigginsOutdoors.com and find out everything, keep up with all of our social media sites out there, and see some videos, how-tos, and all that good stuff.
And everything from Addictive Fishing is still up on the site, too. So, there’s 24 years of videos up there to watch.
Dan Kolodny: Fantastic. That’s a great history right there, just to show some of our listeners how great the fishing was before everything changed. So, awesome. Thanks, guys. If you ever need a guest person on your show, I’m there for you. I’d love to go fishing.
Captain Blair Wiggins: Sounds good, brother.
Dan Kolodny: So, if you enjoyed these discussions about the Indian River Lagoon, please like and subscribe to this podcast.
To learn more about the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program, how you can get involved, and tips on living Lagoon friendly, or to support Lagoon restoration by purchasing One Lagoon merchandise, visit us at OneLagoon.org.
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One Lagoon is an environmental restoration organization focused on conservation leadership for Florida’s Indian River Lagoon. It monitors habitat risks, plant and animal diversity, and ways to protect delicate ecosystems to promote ecological wellbeing in various communities.